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Navajo-Churro sheep: a rare breed prized for its fleece. (The sheep shed).

The Navajo-Churro sheep, developed by and sacred to the Dine and at the core of their culture and economy, is the only domesticated breed of sheep indigenous to the Americas. Though driven to near extinction since the 19th century by government stock reductions that slaughtered hundreds of thousands, the Churro was always cherished and protected by the Dine who hid remnant herds in remote areas such as Black Mesa and Monument Valley. Today it is a nationally and internationally recognized rare and endangered domestic breed--hardy, intelligent, and resistant to scrapie and other diseases and of rising economic value. Its fleece is one of the finest in the world--long, lustrous, and low in grease, with an amazing range of colors and a white of remarkable purity that takes dyes with great clarity and depth.

In September 2000, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, a Cultural Survival Special project, began selling fleece in addition to weavings on its website after seeing bags of Dine churro wool sitting unsold in the sun on Coal Mine Mesa because the local market rate was only five cents per pound. About 300 pounds were sold in the first 18 months--raw and carded wool, both white and colored--and customer feedback has been positive. In June, 2002, Black Mesa Weavers held its first major wool buy and 35 households brought freshly sheared fleece to a hay shed at the Hardrock Chapter to sell at $1.60 per pound. Some colors were extremely rare, including antique grey, antique brown and silver. Black Mesa Weavers purchased 2,265 pounds, and given that an average fleece weighs 6.5 pounds, they bought wool from about 350 Navajo-Churro sheep. Almost 72 pounds of the fleece was "hogget," the first shearing of a lamb or yearling, which some weavers say is the softest and finest.

Assuming not everyone brought fleece to be sold, it is safe to estimate there are at least 450 Navajo-Churro sheep in the Black Mesa region. To our knowledge, this event was the first time an accurate estimate had been made of the number of Churro on Black Mesa. The wool buy also offered a chance to enroll sheep in the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association.

Black Mesa Weavers is now marketing about 500 pounds of fleece from the hardrock wool buy via its website, Cultural Survival bazaars and direct sales to hand spinners and weavers worldwide. The group is seeking grant funding to expand the cooperative and develop a business plan. This enterprise would enable the group to market churro fleece products from raw wool to yarn, directly from the source, providing jobs for Dine and income for economically depressed communities.

It is our hope that the Navajo Nation will continue to support the cultural and economic survival of the Dine and will work with sheepherders to implement a sustainable environmental policy that will provide for the restoration and development of the Navajo-Churro as a breed of livestock uniquely adapted to the arid ecosystem in which it thrives.

For more information, contact project coordinator and co-founder Carol Snyder Halbeerstadt, PO Box 543, Newton, MA 02456;; www.
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Author:Halberstadt, Carol Snyder
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 2003
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