At the college of agriculture at Utah State University, a controversy has erupted over a flock of sheep. It doesn't look like much at first; it concerns the politics of academic funding and the logistics of breeding livestock. The sheep don't look like much, either. They are small and scruffy, with as many as six horns on their heads. The breed is called Churro - the Spanish word for coarse.
But the scrappy Churro
could help revitalize traditional Navajo culture. And the fight
over them is about more than columns of numbers: It is about
suburbanization, money, loyalty and God.
sheep came to the New World 400 years ago with Spanish explorers.
From the beginning, they were caught between the European newcomers
and Native Americans. Bands of Navajos raided Spanish missions to
steal them, and by the 1860s the tribe had hundreds of thousands of
Churro. They proved sturdy survivors of both bitter cold and
searing heat, and produced a long, workable fleece the Navajos used
in their weavings. They were so important to the Navajos that the
U.S. government's efforts to subdue the tribe led to a campaign to
exterminate the livestock in 1863, led by Kit Carson. The feds
struck again during the Depression of the 1930s, when the
Department of Agriculture killed more Churro in order to control
overgrazing and regulate prices.
By the 1970s,
only about 400 Churro remained on the reservation among a sheep
population of 300,000.
Into this extinction
crisis wandered a young sheep specialist named Lyle McNeal. One day
in 1972, he took some students from the Boot and Spurs Club at
California State Polytechnic College to a ranch in the hills above
the Salinas Valley to see paint horses and mule-footed hogs. But
his eye was caught by a small band of long-haired, glossy
The ranchers, it turned out, kept a few
Churro as game animals for clients from Hollywood to shoot for
sport. When McNeal visited the Navajo Nation five years later and
learned some of the history of the Churro, "the wheels started
going around in my mind," he recalls. "I was saying, "Now wait a
minute, I just saw some in California, but there weren't that many,
and they were shooting them for their heads, and now they are
endangered, almost extinct?" That led me to get the idea to have
some method for me paying back the Native American people for some
of the wrongs that we'd done."
two rams and six ewes, he pieced together a small breeding herd of
Churro at Cal Poly. When he accepted a position at Utah State in
Logan, in 1979, the university paid for the flock of 30 to be moved
to the pleasant town at the foot of the Wasatch Range in northern
The sheep were put out to graze on a field
just below the football stadium at the foot of the stately, sloping
campus. McNeal, his wife, Nancy, and their six children moved to a
house on an acre of land outside of town, where they raised
chickens, ducks, horses and collies. Two more children would
follow, as well as a Navajo foster
"We were having the
time of our lives," says McNeal, recalling the days when he and his
students drove a donated pickup truck around the sprawling Navajo
reservation, combing it for Churro. Sometimes the scientists would
wait days for the family to decide who owned the sheep, and whether
they wanted money or lambs in
"Most of the people I
dealt with were women," he said. "It's matrilineal out there. A lot
of times the man would be really close to making a deal, and then
pretty soon the wife was coming out: "What are you doing?"
What McNeal was doing was seeking out sheep
with classic Churro features - long, nongreasy fleeces with both a
coarse outer layer and soft, lustrous inner layer; "mascara' - a
dark, disease-resistant coloration around the eyes; and front legs
and faces that were free of wool and therefore wouldn't pick up
burrs from the shrubs that dominate the high, dry
He bred the sheep back at Utah
State University, right there on campus.
Navajos benefited from their investment. Over the years, the Navajo
Sheep Project has funneled 2,000 Churro back to the tribe, and at
least that many to sheep growers elsewhere in the United
Among the Navajos that McNeal introduced
to Churro raising was the Begay family of Jeddito, Ariz., which now
raises 95 sheep. "He is the only white man to ever come out to our
sheep corral," says Sharon Begay. "No other universities - New
Mexico, Arizona - have. He's come a long way to be in our sheep
corral, to be there. He's made a name for himself among the Navajo
Marjorie Curley, who raises 130 Churro
in nearby Ganado, says tribal grazing officials have never visited
her herd. But McNeal instructed her family in everything from range
management to vaccination
expertise," she says. "We really appreciate him for it."
McNeal didn't just luck into his relationship
with the Navajos. The son of an Air Force aviator, he had developed
a deep affection for Native Americans during a youth spent on
military bases close to reservations.
Lyle lived near the Chippewas in Minnesota, the Flatheads in
Montana, the Washoes in Nevada, and the Navajos, whose sprawling
25,000-square-mile reservation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico
McNeal was the first member of his
family to attend college. At Cal Poly, he spent his undergraduate
years living in a horse stall, mare urine running beneath his cot -
a privilege he earned by working with the horses. One summer he
worked on a ranch, and a fellow cowhand gave him the Book of
Mormon. He liked the clean living it outlined, and
In his patriarchal blessing - a
mystical pronouncement from a church elder that outlined what he
could expect in life - the 22-year-old McNeal was told his job
would be to fight the abuse of authority.
State University seemed a perfect fit for the energetic new
professor. What could be better than settling deep in Mormon
country in Logan - a place from which he could reintroduce the
Navajo people he loved to the sheep that had once served them so
well? Even better, Utah State was a land-grant institution,
mandated to help rural people. He even put a 20th century spin on
that historic mission: He helped Indians, the people whose
territory was taken to fund the land-grant universities in the
But McNeal's efforts generated more
is about disciplining children, teaching them responsibility and
planning for the future," says one Navajo sheepherder. "It
encompasses the concept of being humble."
Sharon Begay credits the family's Churro operation with lifting her
relatives out of alcoholism 20 years ago (see profile page
McNeal's successes didn't go unnoticed
elsewhere. An article on the Navajo Sheep Project has appeared once
a month, on average, for the last 20 years, in publications ranging
from Sheep! to National Geographic, as often as not accompanied by
a photograph of a broadly smiling McNeal.
Geneticists from Scotland visited, as did Robert Redford, who
bought some sheep for his ranch in New Mexico. An official from the
Mexican state of Chihuahua arrived, and arranged two shipments of
sheep to the Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon, whose Churro
stocks were badly inbred.
McNeal also seemed to
be doing fine on the two bases he shuttled between. On campus, he
received awards for his teaching. His wife, Nancy, signed on to the
project as fund raiser. On the reservation, Lyle McNeal was adopted
by the Begay family, who called him "The Blue-Eyed Warrior."
But beneath the surface, things were going
wrong. Today the Navajo Sheep Project is a shambles. The sheep are
staying on their 11th temporary home in 20 years, this time a ranch
in Wyoming. Lyle McNeal is suing Utah State University. He is
seeing a therapist to deal with his feelings of anger and betrayal
toward the institution that once welcomed him and his flock so
warmly. The McNeals, both 58, have taken out a second mortgage on
their home, and Nancy now spends weekdays in Salt Lake City,
teaching fourth grade to make ends meet.
didn't happen all at once, and, looking back, there doesn't seem to
have been any one cause.
think the fact that the herd grew so much was what made things so
difficult," says H. Paul Rasmussen, the director of Utah State's
Agricultural Experiment Station. During the 1980s, the flock grew
from 30 to 100 sheep; it had to move five times to find more space
or better facilities.
Although McNeal and the
university spent that decade trying to make the Navajo Sheep
Project a self-sustaining, nonprofit enterprise, relationships
quickly became strained.
In 1986, Rasmussen cut
McNeal's travel budget, claiming his trips to the reservation were
yielding neither academic publications nor grant money for the
In 1989, the university said the
project had to start paying one-quarter of McNeal's salary, a blow
from which McNeal says the project has never
Eight years later, McNeal claims, the
Dean of Agriculture, Rodney Brown, threatened to destroy the
According to McNeal, Brown called him
into his office in 1997 and said the university could sell the herd
to the slaughterhouse to cover the expenses it had racked up. At
this, McNeal - who describes himself as "obnoxious and disliked and
Scottish and ornery' - filed the lawsuit against the university
(HCN, 8/18/97) and took his sheep on the road.
First he went to the Navajo Nation, where it was difficult to keep
the large herd together on overgrazed land, and then to Bear Lake,
Utah. The feed was better, but the sheep were welcomed only because
they could help federal scientists determine whether male or female
coyotes ate more sheep.
By September, the
experiment was over, 37 sheep had been eaten, and the 200-head
flock was homeless again.
sacrificed them," says McNeal angrily. "Literally! You've heard of
the sacrificial lamb; we had 37 of "em."
told the university he was bringing the sheep back to the campus
farm. A few days later, he says, he got a phone call from a local
reporter saying Utah State University President George Emert had
threatened to arrest McNeal if he unloaded so much as one Churro on
"I had a
hard time believing this," says McNeal, sitting across town from
campus in the shabby, donated offices of the Navajo Sheep Project,
a much-deflated version of the man who was once the focus of
salutary articles in Diversity magazine and the Los Angeles
between McNeal and Utah State University is total. McNeal accuses
the university of threatening the flock, arbitrarily cutting back
his academic appointment from 12 months to 9 months a year,
tampering with his files and his mail, interfering with his
attempts to find grants and off-campus land for the sheep, and so
overloading him with teaching duties that he had to neglect the
University officials strenuously
deny these charges. They say that the Navajo Sheep Project, while
admirable, is too expensive for a state that contains far fewer
Navajo people than New Mexico or Arizona.
say they never undermined McNeal's efforts. Emert denies ever
threatening to arrest McNeal. Brown says McNeal is a highly
regarded faculty member whose work is right in line with the
mission of a land-grant
"Only a land grant
could have a Navajo Sheep Project," he says
He adds that McNeal turned down the
university's offer to reinstate his 12-month appointment. As for
McNeal's accusation that the dean threatened to sell the flock to
the slaughterhouse, Brown attributes it to a misunderstanding on
McNeal's part. It "would have been ridiculous, to spend all those
years building up this flock of sheep and then do that," he says.
"No one would ever have thought such a thing."
Brown has a rebuttal for each of McNeal's charges, and McNeal can
rebut each of Brown's rebuttals. And it gets thoroughly nasty.
McNeal isn't shy about how angry he is. He rails at the university
and its administrators. And there are administrators who won't even
dignify his charges with a response; others laugh when asked about
the controversy and say they thought the case had been dismissed.
Each side has its partisans.
former editor of Utah Science, the quarterly newsletter of Utah
State's Agricultural Experiment Station, says administrators
consistently tried to minimize McNeal's
"I think he always
wondered why he was not included or supported, but I don't think he
was cognizant (until recently) of the low-level campaign that was
being run against him," says Gutknecht, who now works in
Asked why the administration didn't
support McNeal, Gutknecht speculates, "Maybe because he was
unconventional, or maybe because he was aggressive in promoting his
role, or maybe because he didn't go through the established
channels, or maybe it was because the administrators thought that
they did not get enough credit for it."
Land-grant universities were established at the
end of the Civil War to train working people to extract wealth from
the land (HCN, 11/14/94). This was a young country, then, with a
Western frontier and a distaste for the elite European model of
education. The land-grant system succeeded
Within the first century of its
formation, each American farmer went from feeding four people to
feeding more than 50. Unfortunately, greater efficiency nearly
eliminated the family
"There literally has
been nothing personal in the land-grant community's effort over the
last 30 years to replace men with machines and chemicals," Jim
Hightower wrote in Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times, in 1972. "These
workers are considered only as "units," and "inputs," no different
than the machinery that replaces them. It is not that researchers
have it in for farm workers; chances are that they just do not know
Lyle McNeal knows plenty of people who
work the land. When the Begays, who raise Churros and spin and
weave their wool into traditional rugs, heard that Utah State might
sell off the breeding herd, Sharon Begay called the
"I told them that
if they even touched the sheep we would have old ladies with tennis
shoes protesting on their university campus overnight," she says.
"And that they'd have to reckon with not only the Navajo women but
the Navajo Nation, because that's how we feel about Dr. McNeal.
Because if you kill off those sheep, they're like Navajo people."
It is the kind of statement many scientists
would scoff at, or write off as rhetorical overstatement. But not
McNeal. Biblical and Western myths and something like Gaia
consciousness collide in him. In his office, Cadillac Desert lies
on top of a copy of Veterinary Science, Endocrinology, and
Reproduction. The Cowboy Life leans against the Earth First!
Reader. There are plaques and awards for his years as a fighter
pilot with the U.S. Air Force, and State of the World reports from
1990 through the present.
But McNeal's nature
shows most in how he treats his livestock. No matter how many times
he moves, or how hard pressed he is to find a secure pasture,
McNeal won't make things easier for himself by killing any of his
sheep. When they get past reproductive age, they're put out to
pasture and retired. When they die, this former cowpoke buries
The university system isn't designed to
reward this behavior, and McNeal has not produced what the system
does reward: peer-reviewed articles and research grants.
"There were hardly any
publications that came out of Lyle McNeal's operation; that's the
bottom line," says Experiment Station head
evaluated differently than anybody else. And I think that's really
the key to this whole thing. He thinks he's being singled out for
criticism, and singled out for action. He's not. He's treated
exactly like everybody else."
You might expect
that McNeal's sheep, and maybe even the man himself, could find a
home on the Navajo Nation, which is as self-governing and sovereign
as any state.
The reservation is the size of
Ireland, and 220,000 people live there. McNeal estimates that about
one-third of the families on the reservation raise sheep, and there
are some 15,000 resident weavers.
Navajo Sheep Project never became a priority among tribal leaders.
Milton Bluehouse, who was a member of the Navajo Tribal Council for
most of the "90s, says, "With unemployment at 50 percent or more
here on the reservation, there's a push to create jobs, and that's
related to bringing in big industries - DOE contracts to develop
energy out here, coal and gas," he says. "They think technology and
science are the answer."
attracting big money is the bottom line for the Navajo Tribal
Government, it is survival itself for scientists at Utah State
"We tell new
professors right up front that if you do not bring in $250,000 to
$300,000 three years from now, you won't be able to run a program
sufficient to qualify for tenure," Dean Brown told a writer for
Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, in September 1998. "You
need to pay for your own graduate students, computers, and
everything else. You cannot depend on the university to provide all
that money. And every project has a certain clientele. A few years
ago, a guy here created milk for the space shuttle."
To survive, these scientists compete
head-to-head with urban-based scientists for money from federal
agencies like the National Institute of Health or the USDA to do
genome research or to develop meat that fights cancer. And they
bring home the bacon. Utah State's ag scientists brought in $6.4
million in competitive grants in 1990-1991. By 1998, the figure was
$22.7 million. Meanwhile, "formula funds' - money from state and
federal coffers that ag experiment stations, extension services and
ag colleges use to help rural people - have remained
Brown is enthusiastic about competing
for research grants. "If you're good, you win," he says. "There are
mistakes made, but it's a very good system for making sure the
money's spent on the best research."
agrees with one thing: His work is unfashionable in the New
"Right off the bat, I
could see my work wasn't going to get much in the way of
endorsements from the industry," says McNeal. "The Churro is the
Volkswagen of the sheep breeds. So it was felt administratively -
by some, not all - that these sheep made the university look funny.
That they weren't on the cutting edge of
"We (Utah State)
have got money with Monsanto, a lot that came in with the BHT,
bovine somatotropin, BGH. They've been doing even cloning here, and
a lot of transgenic work, and monoclonal antibodies, all kinds of
was Lyle McNeal raising these scrub sheep. From their perspective,
it made the university look like we were going backwards rather
Curley walks through the sage and piûon near her home outside
of Ganado, Ariz. In her patterned rayon skirt, white shirt and a
black velveteen jacket, she's not dressed for the farm. Indeed, she
is about to leave for her job as a school counselor. But first,
she's taking her family's 130-head flock of Churro to the watering
Her family is one of a growing number of
Navajos who raise Churro sheep.
The sheep glow
in the bright sun. From a pool of shade underneath her red, white
and blue umbrella, Curley compares the Churro to the Suffolk, the
breed her family raised until the early
"We chose Suffolks
because we'd seen them in a field," she says. "They looked so neat
in a fenced field. I found if you had them on the range with sage
and such, you only have six inches of wool (left) on them. The rest
was all rubbed off by the sagebrush."
Churro don't have that problem. Their fleece - which grows up to 18
inches long - stays on the sheep until shearing time. Churro wool
is notably lacking in grease, so it's easier to work with than wool
of other breeds. Curley cards and spins the wool and sells it to
weavers. Churro are naturally resistant to intestinal parasites and
foot rot. And they're good mothers,
"When they lamb, you
don't have to worry about it," she says. "They tend to their young
ones. A Suffolk will have her lamb and just run off from it. They
don't even care to look back at it."
she lets out a piercing scream and sprints after the flock, which
has scattered among the piûons. Eventually the herd makes a
turn in the general direction of the watering tank. Curley walks
back through the sage and describes how a llama, Domingo, protects
newborn lambs from crows, which can easily blind and kill
"He's the babysitter,"
she says. "He'll lay in the middle of the pen and they'll think
there's a little hill for them to run around on, and they'll get on
top of Domingo's back, racing around, nibbling on his ears; he's so
patient with them. Since we've had the llama, no loss to crows.
We've had Domingo for nine years."
Like most of
the family's livestock innovations, the guard-llama idea came from
Curley repeats the refrain common
among Navajos who raise Churro sheep: It's good for the family. Her
teenage daughters, Sherilyn and Valerie, are enthusiastic
"They tend to
it; they just have their heart into it all the time. When they come
back from school, they tend to them. When the pen needs cleaned,
they do it. It's a family thing. It's not only my immediate family,
it's also my nephews, nieces, my sister. They come over. It keeps
the family together."
in Logan, a day's drive to the north, Lyle McNeal sits on the edge
of a chair, elbows on knees, talking about God.
"The Lord wants these sheep
saved, no matter at what cost," he says. "My career now is to fight
this thing and remain a servant of the students, and to serve them
and their parents, who pay the taxes for this institution. If I let
myself down, I let myself down all the way back to Scotland. The
McNeal clan was like a Navajo clan. They were shepherds."
This is dramatic stuff. But the McNeals have
never suffered from colorlessness. Lyle likes to describe his
great-great-great grandfather, Hugh McNeal, who was on the Lewis
and Clark Expedition. When the party found the headwaters of the
Missouri, Hugh straddled it and prayed. He loved Native Americans,
especially the Sho-Bans of Idaho and Montana. Lyle's grandfather
Jack was a wrangler with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. He was
a wanderer who trapped in Alaska and the Yukon, staying with the
Chippewas, the Ojibwas and the Winnebagos, before he settled down
to a job spinning cable for the Golden Gate Bridge.
McNeal fits in with this clan, and he fits in
with Navajo sheepherders.
He just doesn't fit in
with the political or physical realities of the New West. He
couldn't have designed a project that was less politically
streamlined. He's based in Utah, his constituency is in Arizona,
and his sheep are in Wyoming. He would be hard pressed to find a
constituency with less political power than the
Nor has McNeal's defiant nature helped
him, at least so far. Everything about the Navajo Sheep Project has
changed in the last 20 years - his breeding flock has increased
nearly tenfold, and university culture has by all accounts become
more enamored of money and peer-reviewed articles than ever before.
But Lyle McNeal hasn't changed. Despite his successes with the
sheep and his students, he hasn't garnered sufficient grants to
guarantee the flock's security. Nor has he produced many scholarly
articles. He charges the university with undermining his efforts to
get outside money, but on the question of scholarly articles, he's
downright ornery: "Who do peer-reviewed articles help, anyway?" he
says. That's a big question, but peer-reviewed articles
unquestionably help academics who want money sent their
Perhaps history itself has stranded him.
Not so long ago, Utah had more sheep than people. They moved in
bands of 10,000 across the state, and every hand was raised against
Today, even in rural areas, the
land is fenced and subdivided and, it sometimes seems to McNeal,
every hand is raised against his sheep.
past, Utah State ag scientists got an office, a plot of land such
as the one McNeal first kept his sheep on, and a small budget with
which to study, say, erosion rates on rangeland. That's when
students were Mormon farm kids, and Logan was considered a
backwater. Nowadays, Logan is a smaller version of Boulder, Colo.
Trophy homes glisten along the foothills of the Wasatch Range;
students buy double lattes before class, and go jogging on
recreational trails or listen to live rock bands outside the
student union after class.
It is not a campus on
which you'd expect to find sheep grazing. And you
His breeding herd, now about 230 sheep,
lives on a friend's ranch in Wyoming. Several thousand other Churro
sheep are on the Navajo Nation. If you look them up on the Web, you
find them raised all over the country, from Vermont to
Could it be that McNeal, by
sacrificing his career to bringing a sheep breed back from the
brink of extinction, has done his work? Maybe it's time to hand the
project off to another leader, another institution, or both.
Nothing would please him
"I just really feel I'd
like some time, officially on sabbatical, to get the project turned
over to someone who's younger, who's perhaps one of my former
students, maybe a Navajo student who attended Utah State, and have
them take over the overall management," he says. "And I could be a
counselor or mentor to keep them going. So they're protected into
perpetuity. This nucleus flock must not be put in harm's way
Lisa Jones is a
freelance writer living in Paonia, Colo. She last profiled Ted
Medina (HCN, 12/20/99), who runs a boarding house for migrant
farmworkers in Olathe, Colorado.