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This article appeared in the March/April issue of the ALBC newsletter. ALBC members receive 6 bi-monthly newsletters that contain articles about the breeds of livestock and poultry that we work to conserve as well as the people involved in these efforts. Members also receive an annual breeders directory that provides contact information for ALBC members who have breeding stock available, as well a list of products from these breeds that they offer for sale.

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From the March/April 2008 ALBC Newsletter:

Rescuing the Navajo-Churro Sheep
by Gay Chanler

Navajo-Churro LambMy first encounter with Navajo-Churro sheep was on a visit to a homestead on the Navajo reservation in Pinyon, Arizona. Here, where Pinyon pine and juniper shrubs soften the sharp contours of the rocky canyons and washes, a small community continues the sheepherding traditions of their ancestors. That day on Jay Begay Jr.’s ranch, sheep dogs raced diligently outside a hand-hewn wooden paddock, keeping the sheep in line and predators away.  Chickens perched in the pines, shaggy ewes nursed their lambs, and four-horned rams lay peacefully in the shade of their separate pens. Their dense, wooly coats in hues of black, brown, red, gray, and white are reminiscent of the rich and varied colors of Native corns and chili peppers.

Sheep is Life FestivalLike chilies, corn, beans and squash, Navajo-Churro lamb and mutton is integral to Native foodways of the southwest. Since the Spaniards introduced it roughly four hundred years ago, the Churro supplied wool and meat for Navajo, Hispanic and Pueblo peoples. The arrival of the sheep was foretold in Navajo creation stories. A vital source of food and fiber, it is important in religious ceremonies, central to cultural expression, and family and community cohesion. As one elder has said: “sheep is life”.

But history was not kind to the Diné or to the breed and by the 1970’s it was almost extinct, replaced by other ovine breeds less suited to the rugged, water-scarce environment. Today, while the fleece is regaining notoriety among weavers, fiber artists, and collectors for its long-staple, silky yarn of many colors, the meat is not well known beyond Indian country. This may be about to change.

Navajo-Churro flockTo taste this lamb or mutton is to partake of the rugged, arid landscape where the sheep roam. The flavor of desert sage and a myriad of seasonal grasses and herbs add a distinctive, clean savor to the meat. This is the gustatory quality that the French call “terroir” – the unique flavor of a particular place, a communion of the climate and soil, water and forage that nourish the sheep.

To celebrate the nuance of flavor that is rooted in one’s place of habitation also honors the hard work and the artisanship of the producers. In Europe this appreciation is embedded in commercial recognition and labeling of origin. It protects the product from commodification, inferior imitations, and is most widely applied to the work of vintners and cheese makers. In our American supermarket food culture we have all but lost our sensitivity to these nuances in food. We tend to prefer uniformity and shelf life, and thus lose the distinctiveness of traditional foods, seasonal and regional flavors.

Mutton stew with parched corn or hominy, grilled mutton ribs, or thick tortillas stuffed with lamb, or blood sausage, are some of the popular lamb preparations on the reservation. While the Navajo focus less on epicurean preparations than Anglo cooks, the sweet, tender, and lean meat of the Navajo-Churro lends itself well to any culinary method. The fat of the Navajo-Churro sheep is concentrated around their organs and can be easily removed. The limited fat distribution means that it does not overpower the flavor of the meat. Instead, the meat is seasoned with the flavors of desert forage upon which they graze.

To truly appreciate this heritage food, consider the foodways of a Native people who have survived and prospered by it without the systems of our current modern agricultural and livestock industries. Traditional grazing methods incorporate transhumance, or rotational herding, wherein the shepherd determines where to graze the sheep depending on the season, the quality and varieties of the forage, the medicinal properties of certain plants and how they maintain the health of the flock. There are no chemical dips; rather the sheep are run through a haze of smoke to control parasites. This knowledge is the collective wisdom of generations of shepherds and is particular to place. In this way people, animals, and landscape function holistically as community.

By preserving and promoting food traditions that embrace ecological balance and gastronomy as well as cultural survival we ensure food security, healthy humans and landscapes, as well as good eating. Preserving rare breeds ensures biological diversity, essential to a resilient healthy planet. These are the reasons why the Slow Food Navajo-Churro presidium has come to be.

The Presidium
In the summer of 2006, several of the non-profit organizations which had devoted themselves to the recovery of Navajo-Churro sheep joined forces with Slow Food USA to establish a presidium to promote the market recovery of Navajo-Churro lamb, to foster its sustainable production, and to ensure that it remains a multi-purpose breed linked to cultural traditions in the U.S. Southwest.  In recent decades, the production and marketing of meat and wool from this breed has had a focus in but has not been restricted to the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, where strong traditions persist on the western reservation lands of the Navajo Nation. Thus, the Navajo-Churro sheep Presidium was organized to initially benefit a loose collective of Diné sheepherders, meat producers, hand-spinners and weavers, most of who live on western and northern “chapters” of the Navajo Indian reservation. The Presidium will help develop direct-marketing strategies for them within the region, particularly targeting chefs and caterers who are interested in using the whole carcass, from snout to tail.

The Presidium was initially formed through the collaboration of Slow Food USA with Diné Be’iina, the Navajo Churro-Sheep Association, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Center for Sustainable Environments, and Renewing America’s Food Traditions. The Alta Arizona Slow Food Convivium, the Institute for Integrated Rural Development at Diné College, the Navajo Sheep Project, and Heifer International have also played important supporting roles in the recovery of this breed.  It is hoped that once the model for value-added direct marketing of Navajo-Churro lamb is seen to benefit those in Western Navajo lands, a similar but non-competitive effort will be developed between Eastern Navajo and Hispanic lands in New Mexico.

It will be a memorable day when all residents and visitors to Arizona will be able to savor Navajo-Churro lamb, raised on the Colorado Plateau where Navajo shepherds continue to nurture their traditions and their flocks in harmony with the land.

Gay Chanler is Convivium co-leader of Slow Food Alta Arizona, Flagstaff Arizona, and the coordinator of the Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium. For more information email Gay at mchanler@cybertrails.com.

For more information about Slow Food USA, contact: Slow Food USA National Office, 20 Jay Street, Suite 313, Brooklyn, NY 11201, call (718) 260-8000, email info@slowfoodusa.org, or visit www.slowfoodusa.org.


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