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A Yarn that Keeps on Spinning

The churro sheep exhibit at Bosque Redondo. Photo by Eric Maldonado.

Churro sheep have a unique place in New Mexico history. Originally brought by Juan de Oñate in 1598 from the Iberian Peninsula, churro was the first breed of domesticated sheep in the land known as the New World.

They were the mainstay for Spanish settlers and conquistadors living along the upper Rio Grande Valley throughout the 17th century. These sheep later became central to the Navajo (Diné) economy and society as well, due to intense cultural interactions with the Spanish. Until 1863, Churro sheep persisted as the primary source of wool for the Diné as well as the garment industry of the west.

Aside from being an excellent wool producer, the sheep themselves are a unique animal. Churro sheep are polycerate, which means multihorned or more than two horns. This is a rare genetic trait, which is only possessed by a select group of mammals including but not exclusive to: Churro sheep, Jacob sheep, Manx Loaghtan sheep, Hebridean sheep, Icelandic sheep and Finnish Landrace sheep; all of which are European in origin. Interestingly, this ancient trait can be observed not only in rams but also in ewes. Ewes typically have two to four horns while rams typically have four and can sometimes have up to six horns.

Churro sheep were nearly extinct during the livestock reductions in the 1930s and 1940s but there are contemporary agencies and nonprofit organizations that support their revival such as the “Navajo Sheep Project” and the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. In fact, Churro flocks can be observed at three different sites across New Mexico, which includes Fort Sumner Historic Site/Bosque Redondo Memorial, Los Luceros Historic Property, and New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.

At Bosque Redondo Memorial, the sheep are used for many purposes including education, healing, and reconciliation. Each year part of the flock is given back to the Navajo Nation to grow new flocks and continue traditions of weaving. Recently, one Navajo family sent the site a saddle blanket made with wool from sheep they received. As well, Ezekiel Argeanas, Navajo Boy Scout, used site wool to commission a traditional rug dress as part of his Eagle Scout service project. Both textiles can be viewed at the site. This is but one site’s story. We encourage visitation to all of the sites that pay respect to this ancient breed of sheep with a long history in the Southwest.

Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner is open Wednesday–Sunday, 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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