Spanish explorers to the “new world” of the Southwest outfitted their expeditions with all the accouterments needed to not only survive the arduous journey to their destination, but to thrive in a way that afforded the opportunity to feel they were transplanting necessary components of homeland culture. 

Chief among these was the small, rugged Churra sheep, prized for its narrow, light body and its double-coat of fleece that’s low in grease, making it easy to process.

As time unfolded and miscegenation ensued, Spanish culture began to take on different dimensions as the invariable exchange of goods and ideas took place with indigenous Pueblo and Plains cultures.  

Both Coronado’s (1540) and Oñate’s (1598) expeditions came with copious numbers of Churra (the name’s since been anglicized to Churro), that over time made their way into Pueblo and Navajo hands.

The Navajo in particular are known for their ability to incorporate new technologies into their culture and profit from it, the Churro being one of the most renowned examples as a staple for prized Navajo rugs.  

DSCF2825The Churro came to be so closely associated with the Navajo, that in 1860, the US government, in an attempt to subjugate the rebellious Navajo, nearly destroyed the Churro population.

Stock was further diluted by efforts to “improve” Churro flocks through introduction of other breeds and in the 1930’s the government’s “Stock Reduction” attempts to control rangeland erosion led to the Churro being targeted for further thinning until there were only a few straggling flocks left.

Dr. Lyle Mc Neal was an Animal Scientist at Utah State University in the 70’s  who founded the Navajo Sheep Project, which sought to conserve the Navajo-Churro, particularly among traditional herders and weavers. By 1986 the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association and registry had managed to record all the pertinent data and established historical records of the Churro.

DSCF2805Numbers have steadily climbed since then, but not enough to keep the Navajo Churro off Slow Food’s Ark Of Taste for the United States (the Ark is a compilation of rare and endangered species indigenous to any particular area).

Things are looking up for the Churro, though, as conservation has led to a fuller appreciation of the breed.

The current view of the Navajo-Churro sees a return to what initially made the species ideal for transport to the Southwest; namely its long legs, narrow frame and hearty character which allow it to both browse and graze, resulting in the ability to travel long distances to subsist.

In addition, appreciation of the Churro as agricultural ally  to graze languishing fields, source of fiber for household items and clothing, as well as source of high-grade meat are all part of the recent conservation of the species that operates from a holistic perspective.

Lana Dura’s Minna White was born in New England and for a period produced science documentaries for the NOVA science series as well as PBS and IMAX.

A Master’s in Environmental Law may have prompted her to purchase a five-acre farm in Vermont, and in any event, the move resulted in her working closely with sheep and she’s never looked back since.

DSCF2807In the late 1980’s White heard there was a call for small farms to work with the Navajo Churro’s genetic diversity, and felt they might thrive in Vermont, so she signed up.

It wasn’t an easy task, as so few people worked with Churro at the time and there were even fewer who could sell breeding stock. White’s all about persistence, though, and she was able to purchase five sheep initially, returning to Taos area every several years to add to her flock.

A couple days ago, I was standing on the patio of White’s felting workshop in El Prado, out by the Blueberry Hill area of Taos, on a particularly sunny just-Spring day.

From the patio one can see the porch of her business partner and longtime friend, Connie Taylor, a yarn worker who’s been raising Navajo Churro for decades.

White speaks of Taylor fondly and is careful to point out she’s equally responsible for White’s success in the wool and livestock propagation fields.

SpiritBag-LgAs Lana Dura, they see the sheep not only as the basis of their business, but as a crucial part of the genetic diversity of the American livestock landscape.

White is quick to point out the unfeasibility of raising sheep solely for slaughtering. “The sheep can’t pay for themselves,” she earnestly tells me in her common-sense New England manner. “Oftentimes ranchers make just enough to pay the taxes on keeping the animals,” she adds, “That’s why our motto is, ‘give sheep a job,'” now matter-of-factly meeting my gaze with her intense blue eyes.

At that, she turns and leads me into the felting studio hanging with various earth tones of carded fiber turned to panels and in its natural state. The studio is impeccably maintained and cool against the bright Taos mid-morning sun as White goes through the felting process for me. 

“Mongolian Yurts are felted, and it’s one of the oldest techniques known to man,” she says while simultaneously working a smooth piece of wool with her long, slender fingers. She uses clean New Mexico well water for the process, which turns out incredibly smooth, yet extremely durable felt. Every Lana Dura bag is unique and is hand-crafted in Taos.

DSCF2830The products are equally at home in Santa Fe or the Silicon Valley, bearing a classical quality that stems from the luxuriousness of the wool and the timeless, utilitarian shapes they come in.

The larger bags, El Tote and La Chiquita have Cordura bottoms and straps to handle heavy loads, while the elegant Spirit Bag (ideal for wine and spirits) is hand stitched with a colorful yarn tie. Showing its modern appeal, La Bolsita (the little bag) fits iPads and other tablets, lending a soft, organic feel to the harsh reality of the city.

White works with panels the way a painter works with a large canvas, the result being either linear and Bauhaus-like, or abstract and Pollock-like, or somewhere in between. To her, there’s equal artistry in the large panels as well as in the Lana Dura line, all falling under the company’s motto…giving sheep a job that does not require them to be eaten, but allows them to live long, productive lives contributing to the sustainability and durability of their farm or ranch.

For White giving the sheep a job is a full time job, travelling back and forth to Vermont a couple times a year for the bi-yearly-shearing. “Shearing twice a year makes for softer wool,” White points out.

DSCF2823“It’s necessary for us to keep our sheep and our product at the level we expect,”  she adds as we’re heading out to my car now, as I’ve got writing to do and White’s got yarn to felt.

As I slowly drive down the dirt road away from White’s studio, I can’t help but think that perhaps White’s taken on some of her Churro’s characteristics by browsing over long distances all the way to Vermont, and simultaneously grazing in the open dry-plain of the Southwest, the dichotomy producing durability and the ability to contribute to a greater whole, the bottom line, and most importantly – to keep the past alive.

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Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.