Searching for pasture

  • Lyle McNeal's Navajo Churro sheep flock

    Lyle McNeal photo
  • Lyle McNeal at Utah State University in Logan

    Stephen Trimble photo
  • In early years, Lyle McNeal looks for sheep on Navajo Reservation

    Jim Keyes photo
  • Three generations of shepherdesses near Canyon de Chelly

    Kit Latham photo
  • Domingo the llama guards Churro flock near Ganado, Ariz.

    Lyle McNeal photo
  • Lyle McNeal receives award in 1994 from Rodney J. Brown (L) and R. Dean Plowman

  • "SATAN": Spooky eyes and behavior earned this Churro ram his name

    Lyle McNeal photo

Note: this feature article is accompanied by this issue's Uncommon Westerner profile: "Not your average beauty queen."

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.

Churro 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 sheep.

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."

Starting with 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 Utah.

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 child.

"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 return.

"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 reservation.

He bred the sheep back at Utah State University, right there on campus.

The 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 States.

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 people."

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 techniques.

"He's got 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.

The young 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 and Utah.

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 converted.

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.

Utah 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 first place.

But McNeal's efforts generated more than income.

"Raising animals 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 15).

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.

It didn't happen all at once, and, looking back, there doesn't seem to have been any one cause.

"I 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 project.

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 recovered.

Eight years later, McNeal claims, the Dean of Agriculture, Rodney Brown, threatened to destroy the flock.

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.

"We sacrificed them," says McNeal angrily. "Literally! You've heard of the sacrificial lamb; we had 37 of "em."

McNeal 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 university property.

"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 Times.

The disagreement 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 sheep project.

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.

They 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 university.

"Only a land grant could have a Navajo Sheep Project," he says fondly.

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.

Kurt Gutknecht, former editor of Utah Science, the quarterly newsletter of Utah State's Agricultural Experiment Station, says administrators consistently tried to minimize McNeal's work.

"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 Wisconsin.

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 spectacularly.

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 farmer.

"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 any."

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 university.

"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 them.

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 Rasmussen.

"(McNeal) wasn't 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.

Still, the 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."

If attracting big money is the bottom line for the Navajo Tribal Government, it is survival itself for scientists at Utah State University.

"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 steady.

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."

McNeal agrees with one thing: His work is unfashionable in the New West.

"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 research.

"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 high-tech stuff.

"And here was Lyle McNeal raising these scrub sheep. From their perspective, it made the university look like we were going backwards rather than forwards."

Marjorie 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 tank.

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 1980s:

"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."

The 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, too.

"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."

Suddenly 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 them.

"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 Lyle McNeal.

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 sheepherders.

"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."

Back 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 Navajo.

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 way.

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 their predators.

Today, even in rural areas, the land is fenced and subdivided and, it sometimes seems to McNeal, every hand is raised against his sheep.

In the 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 don't.

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 California.

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 more.

"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 again."

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.

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