By Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers
Al Hoceima and her fellow ewes. Photo by Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers.
The autumn sunlight filters through the yellow cottonwood leaves, illuminating the sheep corral and casting a halo around Al Hoceima, Dr. Teresa Smith de Cherif’s Navajo-Churro ewe. Al Hoceima, the only pure Churro in the flock and named for a city in Morocco, stands guard in front of three fluffy, white Cotswold-Churro ewes and one disabled Merino. Al Hoceima does not look like she belongs next to Little Bo-Peep. Her eyes glow out of her dark face and her ombré wool transitions from black to grey in long, wavy tendrils. She looks fierce, wild even, carrying herself like a queen, like an animal that has been told she is sacred and feels that power in every part of her being.
In 2010, Smith de Cherif, the vice chair of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District Board and an infectious disease specialist, brought Al Hoceima from Mora to her farm in El Cerro. Prior to working as a doctor in Mora, Smith de Cherif served the community at the Pine Hill Health Center on the Ramah Navajo reservation.
Prized for their hardiness and adaptability to the desert, their sturdy wool and flavorful meat, the Navajo-Churro sheep have a long history with both Hispano and Indigenous communities. The sheep’s ancestors were an old Iberian breed introduced to what is now the American Southwest by the Spanish in the sixteenth century and quickly acquired through trades and raids by Diné (Navajo). However, Diné elders and knowledge keepers will tell you that T’aa Dibei, the Navajo term for the Churro, have always been a part of their existence in some capacity.
The Diné Bahaneʼ (Navajo creation story) tells that in the underworld, when the animals were being created and placed by Talking God, T’aa Dibei was created as a domestic sheep and placed on the earth. Talking God also created the bighorn sheep, which he placed in this area, but it was not domestic and was considered the sheep of the deities. The story told, however, that Diné would receive T’aa Dibei as a gift when the time was right. So when the sheep appeared with the Spanish, it was a reunion written in prophecy.
It was during her time among the stories, culture, and grandmothers of Ramah—who became the healers of the healer after the doctor suffered a serious automobile accident—that Smith de Cherif heard, witnessed, and gained reverence for this heritage sheep breed. As a second-generation Irish woman whose relatives maintain a family farm in Ireland, Smith de Cherif already had a kinship with sheep written into her DNA. She remembers fondly her time as a child chasing sheep along the countryside of County Galway. Today, stewarding Al Hoceima and her other ewes, whom she raises for wool, allows her to connect to her present home and give back to the elders who prayed over her and whom she cared for during her time at Pine Hill.
“I got to know some of the weavers, and I saw the wool that they had processed. They were some of my patients, in their eighties, and I had such reverence for them,” Smith de Cherif tells me. “The lineage of these Churro sheep goes back at least four hundred years, and I feel like they are sacred animals because they’ve been so cared for and respected. I feel this debt and a bond, that my life was forever touched. So when I take care of a lame sheep that I have, or a sheep that is heritage, I feel like I am in some small way honoring the wonderful women that I loved and respected.”
I understand that feeling of admiration. My grandmother was a traditional Navajo weaver who worked with the Two Grey Hills designs, and my memory of her will forever be encased in the soft, nurturing sounds of her weaving. It was a certain music she made at night, a rhythm of carding and spinning wool, of tapping her loom with smooth cedar tools and counting under her breath in two languages, Diné and English.
Weavings by Gladys Daniel, the author’s grandmother. Photos by Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers.
At eight years old, she was Iłnazbah Denetclaw (‘Áshįįhi clan, born for Tł’ááshchí’í). Then she traveled far away from her parents, family, and home in Sheep Springs to begin a new life at a Christian boarding school for Native American children in Rehoboth. Here she remained for the next ten years. She became Gladys, a woman who spoke English, cut women’s hair for a living, had eight half-Irish children and, eventually, relearned her Navajo language and, from childhood memories, taught herself to weave.
Roy Kady (Tł’ízílání clan, born for ‘Áshįįhi), whose life has sounded with the barcarole of bleating Churro lambs since his birth, isn’t surprised by my grandmother’s story. He tells me that both the language and weaving is in our DNA and my grandmother simply called upon it. Kady’s umbilical cord is buried in the sheep corral in Tł’izí Da’adlaní (Goat Springs), the community on the Navajo Nation where he has spent his life. In 2006, Kady, along with Jay Begay Jr. and Colleen Biakeddy, founded the Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium to help support shepherds, both on and off the Navajo Nation, who wish to market their lambs and Churro products, including pelts, wool, and meat.
“It’s considered a small, scruffy animal,” says Kady of the Dibé dits’ozí, as the Navajo-Churro are also known. “It doesn’t have a lot of meat, per se, so it doesn’t compete on the larger scale of a meat market. But to us, that doesn’t matter. To us, it’s very flavorful, and it’s leaner than other sheep breeds.” He says that because the sheep forage the land, the variety of plants they consume flavor the meat, and some chefs consider it the best breed for lamb or mutton. The low lanolin levels that make it ideal for weaving also give it a sweeter flavor than commercial breeds.
The presidium works in partnership with the Hispanic Churro producers of northern New Mexico, whom Kady refers to as longtime shepherd friends. According to Kim Kerley, the registrar for the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, there are 379 registered sheep in New Mexico—but this represents only sheep eighteen months and older, and sheep kept for the Navajo Sheep Project are not registered. Nikyle Begay, an inspector for the association and director of the Rainbow Fiber Co-op, estimates that about 1,500 Churro sheep reside on the Navajo Nation. Organizations across New Mexico, such as Rio Milagro Farm in Silver City, the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center, and Tierra Wools in Chama, are working hard to preserve the Hispano traditions of weaving and Churro stewardship. But Kady and other Diné knowledge keepers will tell you that it was not always this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Churro was nearly lost and forgotten.
Many of the Dibé dits’ozí being raised on the Navajo Nation today, including those in Kady’s flock, are the descendants of Navajo-Churro sheep that were taken and hidden in places like Canyon de Chelly, Bears Ears, and Navajo Mountain during Hwéeldi, the Navajo Long Walk. Not everyone, he says, went on the Long Walk. Some stayed behind, in hiding, to ensure that the sheep, and the Diné way of life, would also survive.
Left: Roy Kady with some of his weavings, photos courtesy of the artist. Right: Weaving by Gladys Daniel, photo by Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers.
“The United States government wanted to eradicate our food sovereignty, and one of the ways of doing so was burning our peach trees, our orchards, cornfields, and slaughtering the Churro,” says Kady. “Anything that was a food source was also our culture, because sheep are tied into everything. They teach us life skills, and survival skills. They provided us with clothing, they maintained the land, and there are ceremonies that are structured around the sheep. That is part of the sacredness of the sheep.”
When Diné were allowed to return home to Diné Bikéyah, they were able to rebuild their flocks. However, during the Navajo livestock reduction of the 1930s, the United States government accused the Churro and Diné shepherds of overgrazing and contributing to the Dust Bowl. The Soil Conservation Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs made an executive decision to slaughter approximately 250,000 sheep and goats and 10,000 horses belonging to the Diné—a decision that was carried out without the people’s consent. My great-grandfather told stories of this time, calling it the second Hwéeldi, remembering that the agents left the animals where they were shot, to rot in the sun.
Diné were told to replace their flocks with breeds like the Rambouillet, which produces more meat but is not as hardy as the Churro, which Kady says is able, in large part, to self-medicate against illness and parasites by foraging medicinal plants. These new sheep also had greasy wool that was more difficult to spin into yarn and required more water to clean. Water is a rationed commodity on the Navajo Nation, even today, where many communities have no running water and have to haul it in and store it. To mimic Churro wool, which is a dual fiber with long guard hair and a softer inner down wool, weavers would mix the Rambouillet wool with angora mohair. But, in the end, the Churro was all but forgotten for the next fifty years, except in homes like Kady’s.
“My grandfather acquired four ewes as a dowry from one of the families from Navajo Mountain that was raising the original sheep,” he tells me. “That’s how my grandmother was able to keep them. She never crossbred them. She kept them in a different pen during breeding time and then acquired a Churro ram from the same family. She didn’t breed them every year, but we had about ten ewes that she kept that were divided. And that’s how my mom got her two ewes.”
Kady, who inherited his sheep and weaving tools from his mother, has been raising Churro for at least thirty years. He began learning to weave from his mother and grandmother at the age of nine and is today considered a master weaver. From teaching weaving to maintaining his flock to serving in organizations, he has dedicated his life to the care and preservation of these sacred beings.
In the late 1980s, the Navajo Sheep Project and Navajo-Churro Sheep Association facilitated a large disbursement in Chinle, giving families all over the reservation lambs to start their own Churro flocks. In 1991, Diné Bé’Iiná (Navajo Lifeway) was formed, which Kady has been involved with for more than thirty years, including serving as president for eight years. In 1996, Diné Bé’Iiná began the Sheep Is Life Celebration, an annual event that celebrates traditional shepherding and fiber arts cultures from around the world. Diné Bé’Iiná describes theirs as a mission to “restore the balance between Navajo culture, life, and land.” While they serve all sheep producers and fiber artists, they are particularly dedicated to conserving the traditional Navajo-Churro.
All sheep are important to Diné life, but the Churro has special significance. When these sheep, which nearly vanished from Diné forever, returned home, it was like a reunion with lost relatives. The cultural impact they have on families includes food sovereignty and a sustainable livelihood.
“Every day I wake up and I do my offerings at my sheep corral,” says Kady. “It is with them that I make my offerings for renewal, for strength, for the world and the whole universe to be in balance. They provide the outlook of a new day and we care for them in that respect. We don’t let them starve, we make sure they are happy, because that makes us happy.”
Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers lives in Valencia County with her husband, Larry, and daughter, Tachi’Bah. She owns Silver Moon Studio in Bosque Farms.