Navajo churro sheep are descendants of the Iberian Churra sheep, brought to the Rio Grande Valley (i.e. New Mexico) in 1598 as Spain was establishing villages in this new area (at least to them). The initial number brought with Don Juan Onate and his settlers was 2900 sheep. The Spanish enslaved the Pueblo people and had them work as shepherds and weavers, the Navajo acquired sheep through trade and raiding. In 1680, the Pueblo people revolted and threw out the Spanish, but they didn’t take their sheep. The Navajo acquired more sheep and expanded the flocks for food, but more importantly for this story, for their wool. These sheep remained in isolated flocks throughout the area that would become New Mexico and Arizona with the Navajo and Pueblo peoples.
In an attempt to get Navajo lands for Western settlers, the US government ordered the destruction of Navajo orchards, but also their sheep. This military action culminated with the Navajo Long Walk, where they were forced to march 300 miles to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. As with the Cherokee Trail of Tears, many didn’t make it. After 3 years, the Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral land and families were issued “native sheep” from flocks that were from New Mexican villages. The last hurdle the sheep and the Navajo had to endure was a 1930s program to eradicate some of the livestock on the Navajo reservation due to a severe drought. By this time the flock which had grown to over ½ million was reduced by about 30%. The Navajo said they knew how to manage their stock of sheep, goats, and horses on their land as they had for hundreds of years and this was unnecessary.
By the 1970s, the Navajo Churro was critically endangered at around 500 head. Several conservancies stepped in and slowly the sheep breed has been revitalized, although still in low numbers compared to many other sheep breeds, but it is no longer facing extinction.
Churro sheep are double coated, with a long straight coarse top coat and a softer, shorter inner coat. The staple length is 6-12 inches for the outer coat, and 3-5 for the inner coat. Many have horns, some with four or more. They are well suited to the harsh environment of the desert Southwest of cold night, hot days, and little water. They come is all colors of brown, black, white, and pretty much any color in between. It’s supposed to be a no- luster wool but I have seen a few fleeces with a pearlescent sheen to them.
I’ve got my hands on several fleeces and mini mill produced roving over the past years. All but one have been from New Mexico, the stray one was from a farm in Montana. Most have been dark brown, grays, and black. I’ve also spun some oatmeal color roving before. I also have one gorgeous white fleece I’m hanging onto for a spinning/natural dyeing project. I’ve got fleeces with really coarse outercoats and some where the outercoat was almost as fine as the innercoat. I don’t separate the coats, I just fluff and spin, however I’ve found that is the outercoat is really coarse it is actually easier to separate the two. You hold each end of the fleece and pull apart.
In general, Navajo churro is not next to skin soft. Lamb fleeces are the exception. However, you need to remember the breed’s wool was used for weaving hardwearing objects such as saddle blankets and rugs, which the wool’s coarseness is perfectly suited for.
Below is some of my Navajo churro handspun yarns. All but one are natural colored.