towering Table Mesa in the vast northeastern corner of the Navajo
Reservation is a tiny ramshackle pen filled with about 35 sheep.
scruffy-looking animals, with their short horns and long brown and
black wool, are Navajo-Churro, a living symbol of the resilience
of the Navajo people.
sheep were nearly wiped out during the tribe's forced relocation
in the 1860s and again in the stock reductions of the 1930s. But
they are making a comeback.
prized wool, in natural colors of tan, black, brown, gray and apricot,
is once again seen in the traditional work of weavers like 66-year-old
Sarah Natani, who owns this herd.
believe the Churro were given to them by the Holy People. Elders
refer to them as "the old ones."
Vasquez de Coronado first brought the sheep to the New World in
1540, from southern Spain. In 1598, the Spanish explorer Juan de
Onate brought 5,000 more.
were descendents of the Churra in Spanish, later corrupted to Churro,
an ancient Iberian breed, and were used by Spanish Conquistadors
to help feed and clothe their soldiers.
sheep were bred and raised by Spanish ranchers along the upper Rio
Grande Valley in the 17th century, and Native Americans began to
acquire animals through raids and trading.
herds caused a lifestyle change for the Navajo, from nomadic hunters
to a stable agricultural existence. And they would give birth to
a history of world-renowned weaving.
weaving when she was 7.
mom was a weaver," she said. "We didn't have enough money.
Weaving was the main thing we did.
would let me finish the black part, the edge. That was the only
thing she trusted me with."
day when Sarah came home from school, she found a loom her father
had made for her out of strips of Levi Strauss denim.
was outside by the sheep corral. It was so cold. My dad put up a
piece of old canvas on one side and the sun would hit where I sat."
she was 9, she sold her first rug at the Sanostee Trading Post.
paid her $15 and she used $3 to buy a weaving comb that she carefully
marked with her initials and still has more than 50 years later.
one of her 4-by-5-foot rugs sells for about $6,000.
bred in the Spanish mountains, were a perfect sheep for the Navajo.
They were hardy and easily adapted to the desert environment. They
ate a variety of plants and could go without water for up to five
were highly resistant to diseases and had lean, tasty meat and abundant
often gave birth to twins or triplets, quickly expanding the herd,
and were fierce, protective mothers.
wool, highly prized for weaving, was long, fine and low in lanolin,
or oil, so it needed little washing with scarce water.
often had four horns, a sacred sign, the Navajo say.
children on the reservation in her generation, Sarah was sent away
to boarding school.
the summers, I would come home and weave," she said. "But
at 15, I just lost interest."
family kept the sheep, and her father transferred the grazing permit
into her name.
1961, she married her husband, Leo Natani, a carpenter. Four years
and four children later he had an accident and couldn't work.
went to welfare to ask for help," she said. "They told
me to sell the permit before they could help me.
mother said, 'You have 10 fingers and at the tip of each finger
is value. You need to work and get things for your family. You have
the sheep here. You have the wool here.' "
Sarah started weaving again.
husband was teasing me about the fat yarn I used. His mom and sisters
used thin wool. He said, 'You weave with wool large enough to rope
a wild horse.' I said, 'You complain about my weaving? One day I'm
going to weave better than your mom.' "
I do," she said, chuckling.
wool comes in a variety of natural colors.
rarest sheep are called "blue." They are born black but
in the first year develop a silver-charcoal inner coat covered by
a brownish-black outer coat.
the sheep are multicolored, like the "badger face," which
has a black belly and legs, with an upper body of white, gray or
tan, and black bars above the eye and on the cheek, nose, chin and
wool can be shorn twice a year, rather than annually, like other
sheep. And it can be sold for $1.60 to $5 a pound, compared with
10 or 15 cents a pound for other wools.
for Churro wool is now so great that Tierra Wools in New Mexico
sells only Churro yarn and weavings, said Sophia Chavez, a director.
strong, lustrous weavings from the Churro wool are durable. Fragments
of wool from a related breed have survived for centuries in the
twist in it
practiced hand turns clumps of carded wool into yarn at a nearly
sits on a wooden kitchen chair with the legs cut off to keep her
close to the ground and leans a spindle against her leg.
have to put a twist in it before you pull it out," she explains.
"I tell people, 'If you learn on a spinning wheel, you'll never
learn lap spinning."
deftly twists and wraps the first few fibers, then starts rolling
the spindle back and forth between her palm and the outside of her
more you pull it out, the thinner it gets."
minutes, she has a large chunk of yarn on the spindle, nearly 30
feet when unwound across the room.
blow for the Churro came in the 1860s, when Col. Kit Carson led
a crusade to subjugate the Navajo. Carson was supposed to move the
tribe to Fort Sumner, but many of them hid in Canyon de Chelly.
force them out, Carson began burning their villages and crops, destroying
livestock and killing people.
the food supply destroyed, Carson convinced them that going to the
reservation was the only way to survive.
leaving, some released their Churro into the rugged fingers of the
1864, Carson began to march more than 8,000 people to Bosque Redondo
Reservation, 300 miles away. Hundreds died of cold and starvation
on what the tribe now calls the "Long Walk."
died after they arrived at the barren camp. Four years later, they
were allowed to return home.
to Navajo teachings, Spider Woman was taught to weave by the spider
and passed her knowledge on to the people. She lives on Spider Rock,
800 feet high in Canyon de Chelly, and her spiritual power joins
Earth and sky.
story of Spider Woman is part of the creation story, said Freddie
Johnson, cultural specialist at the Phoenix Indian Center.
Man told her how to make a loom, with crosspoles of sky and earth
cords, warp sticks of sunrays, healds of rock crystal and sheet
lightning. The batten was a sun halo, and white shell made the comb.
spindles were made of lightning.
Man told them: "From now on, when a baby girl is born to your
tribe you shall go and find a spider web which is woven at the mouth
of some hole; you must take it and rub it on the baby's hand and
arm. Thus, when she grows up she will weave, and her fingers and
arms will not tire from the weaving."
1930s, following a drought, the government determined that the Navajo
were overgrazing their land and set stock reduction goals. Agents
went from hogan to hogan shooting a percentage of the sheep in front
of the owners. The Churro, which the agents thought looked scruffy
and unfit, were the first to go.
than 250,000 Navajo sheep and goats, and tens of thousands of Navajo
horses were killed by federal agents.
still cry when they remember.
loom is made of scrap metal Leo welded together in 1972.
my loom fell apart all the time," she said.
her children were in school, Sarah would weave for eight hours a
used to do that all the time. When you get older, you lose that."
she weaves two to three hours a day.
on her short chair, she looks at the pattern being revealed in her
a rug, you spend the first half making up the design as you go,"
she says. "When you get to halfway, you repeat it." Only
the intricate design, there is no measuring, no counting. It is
all done by eye. There are no scissors, no bits of yarn to be trimmed.
All are worked seamlessly into the piece.
weavers, afraid of trapping all their creativity in one rug, traditionally
leave an escape route of contrasting thread out through the border
of the rug. The "Weaver's Pathway" or "Spirit Line,"
sometimes seen as a mistake by those who don't know the stories,
leaves a way for the weaver's spirit to escape and create new works
takes a ball of the yarn she spun and breaks off a piece about a
begins to work it into the piece.
want to make sure there are no big blocks of color," she says,
dropping one color over the next, and picking it up. She works the
yarn through and pats it down with the comb. "If there are
spaces, you put designs in there."
1930s, the government, believing that other breeds were superior
to the Navajo-Churro, introduced several different breeds, including
the Rambouilett, which produced a fatter meat.
new breeds required more food and water.
the wool was not suited to weaving, being too greasy and having
tight curls and knots. The short fibers broke easily when handspun
and didn't take dyes well.
began buying commercial yarns, breaking the circle between land,
sheep, wool and weaving.
began to be known for her weaving, an Anglo friend took her to a
weaving conference in San Francisco.
didn't know there was weaving all over the world," Sarah said.
They asked Sarah to speak.
introduced myself. I said, 'I'm a spinner, a weaver. I have sheep.'
They were all saying their sheep was the best. They started asking,
'What kind of sheep do you have?' I didn't know what kind. I said,
'They're mixed breed. I use their wool for weaving, their pelts
for bedding, their meat for food.' I said, 'You all have tongue-twisting
names for your sheep. Mine are the best.'
came home that night and I asked Leo, 'What kind of sheep are we
raising?' I told Leo I was so embarrassed because I didn't know."
Dr. Lyle McNeal, a professor at Utah State University, began studying
the Churro and its relationship to the Navajo.
the time, experts guessed the number of Churro left in North America
was 200 to 400 animals.
and his wife began the Navajo Sheep Project to save the breed by
establishing a breeding flock. He started with six ewes and two
rams, and searched the canyons for descendants of the sheep released
had a two-goal thrust," said Mark Peterson, now president of
the project. "Saving the breed, and bringing the animals back
to the traditional Navajo weavers of the Southwest."
project has provided breeding stock for several herds now on the
reservation. Last year it distributed 300 ewes, rams and lambs.
1991, Sheep is Life was established. It is a non-profit organization
that provides technical assistance and seeks to restore status to
its projects is a sheepshearing school with a team of Spanish shearers
that travel from place to place teaching Navajo herders, plus workshops
on processing wool, felting and spinning.
is also planning a summer sheep camp for young people.
American Livestock Breed Conservancy still lists the Navajo-Churro
as rare, with estimates of only about 1,500 animals worldwide.
recalled an incident in the 1980s, when two project workers were
taking some Churro to the reservation in the back of a pickup truck.
they stopped, an old man came up and was looking at the sheep.
was crying, and he said, 'I didn't know there were any of them left.'
It has that kind of meaning for them."