Trying to save two of the parts

Utah State University's Lyle McNeal has spent 20 years reviving Churro sheep and Navajo agriculture

  • Lyle McNeal with weaver Clara Sherman of Two Gray Hills, N.M.

    Kit Latham
  • Churro ram, pictured at Fort Wingate, N.M., in the"40s, was standard

    Fort Wingate

Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue on the West's land grant universities.

CHINLE, Ariz. - The experts were getting testy. They had inhaled clouds of red dust during endless drives across the Navajo Nation. The summer heat had vaulted above 100 degrees just about every day since they had arrived. They'd waited through sweaty, gritty delays as their convoy of trucks crawled across the desert floor.

But it wasn't the harsh conditions that were bothering them. These experts in hands-on skills like breeding sheep and installing irrigation systems were upset because they didn't know why they were here. They had followed Utah State University Professor Lyle McNeal all over the reservation, allegedly to help Navajos raise their sheep in a sustainable way. But instead of imparting their skills and giving advice, they had spent most of their time leaning against corral fences, chatting. McNeal, a professor of sheep and wool science at Utah State, had introduced them to Navajo families and engaged them in conversations about everything except the problems they had traveled here from their universities to solve.

But as the trip wore on, the experts started to relax. They began to realize McNeal didn't want the Anglo specialists to spoon-feed information to the tribal sheep producers; he wanted the project to be a truly joint venture. For that to happen, the scientists had to get to know the Navajos.

Kathy Williams, a textile and home business specialist from Colorado State University, was among the first to catch on:

"I want input from the families," she said. "I have suggestions, but they need to show me how to proceed. They are the experts, after all, on Navajo agriculture."

The plight of the Churro

Lyle McNeal is used to going against the grain. One of the land-grant university system's most decorated teachers, he is also one of its most outspoken critics. He is a Mormon convert who shies away from the racism that can be found in his culture, his adopted state and the academic world. He and his wife, Nancy, have eight children, but they also have a Navajo foster daughter and an extended family of Navajo friends they have known for 20 years. McNeal's most concrete achievement is perhaps the increasing number of Churro sheep - the Navajos' most cherished breed - on the reservation. McNeal, whom the Navajos have called "the blue-eyed warrior," has played a pivotal role in saving the Churro from extinction.

The 52-year-old McNeal's personal history reads like something out of Lonesome Dove. He is the grandson of a wrangler in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and the son of a pioneer aviator. He has lived on or near Indian reservations all his life, first in California, then in Minnesota, Montana, Nevada and Utah. But it wasn't until 1977, when he took a sabbatical year away from his job teaching animal science at California Polytechnic State University, that he took a close look at sheep operations in the Navajo Nation. McNeal, who had ranched sheep in Nevada in the mid-1960s, felt a kinship with the tribe because "the Navajo raise sheep and that's my thing."

The dismal state of the tribal sheep industry surprised him. During his stay, he assisted at shearing centers and saw how poorly the wool was harvested and marketed. He noted that Native American sheep producers used hardly any of the technologies employed by their Anglo counterparts.

But he also learned something that would change his life. He had been taught that the Churro was an "unimproved" breed that should be allowed to die out before it contaminated the more lucrative breeds favored by modern agriculture. Instead, McNeal came to see the Churro through Navajo eyes. He saw that the breed was to the Navajo what the horse was to the plains Indians: a key part of the tribe's culture.

Brought to the Americas in the 1500s by Spanish explorers, the Churro proved a perfect fit for the harsh climate of the Navajo territory. They were disease resistant and could survive on marginal food sources. They produced abundant milk and tasty meat. They had a strong maternal instinct and a high lamb survival rate. The Navajos raised the sheep for food and found their long, coarse, nearly greaseless wool ideal for hand weaving. Weaving rugs and tapestries was an integral part of tribal culture: Navajo lore has it that they were taught the skill by the divine Spider Woman.

The colonization of the West nearly destroyed the Churro. By the mid-1800s, the scruffy Churro, along with the Navajos, were battling the U.S. government for their very existence. As Anglos pressed westward, the Navajos were incarcerated at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico; much of their predominantly Churro herd was systematically destroyed.

When the Navajos were released onto the reservation five years later, they found the government had crossbred their Churros - whose wool grows up to 18 inches in length - with Merino and Rambouillet stock, whose wool was less than three inches long. The short fleeces of the offspring were nearly worthless to Navajo weavers. They mixed it with fibers from Angora goat fleeces, which grow up to a foot long, to make it workable.

In the 1930s, the Churro came under attack again. This time the government cited overgrazing and soil erosion as reasons for a drastic stock reduction program. All breeds were reduced, but the Churro, whose wool was considered worthless on the mass market, was particularly hard-hit. By the late 1970s, it was estimated that less than 500 Churro remained among a reservation sheep population numbering 300,000.

The "blue-eyed warrior" of the land-grant system

Then Lyle McNeal arrived on the scene.

"I asked myself why no one was doing anything about the Churro when we were spending so much to save snails (and) little worms and bugs, which I know are important for diversity," he says. "But the Churro is an economically important animal and sacred to the Navajo."

McNeal sought out a few remaining purebreds in central California, and in 1978 launched the Navajo Sheep Project with a breeding herd of six ewes and two four-horned rams. After 16 years, he has helped increase the number of Churro on the reservation from about 400 to 800. He maintains a breeding herd of 300.

"They're very hardy, very athletic," says McNeal. "I think they're beautiful."

At first, Utah State supported McNeal's work. He had been lured there from Cal Poly in 1979 by the university's proximity to the Navajo reservation and by an academic, extension and teaching tradition that valued family agriculture. The university provided pasture for his small flock, a truck, and money for fuel for his trips to the reservation.

Those were what McNeal refers to as the good old days. They faded fast in the mid-1980s when his supervisor in the ag school changed. He began to hear murmurings that he was wasting his time with the small producers on the reservation. This baffled him. McNeal and his wife, Nancy, who works closely with him at the project, suspect prejudice against Native Americans among some university officials and jealousy from colleagues who resented the attention the media directed to the sheep project, ranging from Newsweek and Smithsonian magazines to the Today Show.

"There are people (on campus) who think you've sold your soul if you work with the Indians," says McNeal. "It's a real caste system ... Education has taught me that prejudice presides with the educated."

In 1986, Utah State administrators stopped providing facilities for the flock and transportation costs for McNeal's trips to the reservation. Later, the university provided some land for the flock, but the McNeals and Lyle's students had to raise funds to construct barns, corrals and an office. Another blow was dealt in 1989 when the university gave the sheep project a scant two weeks to come up with funding to cover one-quarter of Lyle's salary, the time they calculated he was spending on the Churro. If he chose to stay on full-time salary, the Navajo Sheep Project would be shut down.

That wasn't necessary. Financial help came from a benefactor in New York City. John Ernst, a well-known collector of old Navajo textiles and a supporter of the Churro project, saved its skin in the face of the 1989 ultimatum. The president of Bloomingdale Properties and the head of the sheep project's Advisory Council, Ernst is still a major funder of the project. But he credits its survival to McNeal's tenacity.

"Lyle goes his own way," says Ernst. "I like that about him and if he weren't that way, the Navajo Sheep Project would have ended long ago ... it's not something that goes over too well in the bureaucracy of academia."

McNeal's skill as a teacher is undeniable. Last fall the National Association of Land Grant Colleges and State Universities, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded McNeal the Western Region's Excellence in Teaching Award. Weldon Sleight, associate dean of the College of Agriculture at Utah State, nominated McNeal for the award.

Sleight is acutely aware of of McNeal's criticism of the university.

"Lyle McNeal is very important to me personally and to this university," says Sleight. "We love him; the problem is we don't have enough money to do what we want to do."

Sleight denies that there is racism on campus, and attributes McNeal's funding problems to shrinking research budgets, not university politics. He says it boils down to simple mathematics: As more and more agricultural research funds are earmarked for biotechnology and other lab-based research, less money can be found to support small, on-the-ground projects. A few hundred Churro sheep - most of which reside in the parts of the reservation in New Mexico or Arizona - don't begin to compare economically to the Utah's burgeoning dairy industry or its large beef herds.

"The Churro project is important for the Navajo heritage," said Sleight. "But how important is it to Utah? ... You put your resources where the demand is. People can say you're looking at economic factors and not social factors, and they could be right."

Sitting in his office at Utah State, behind a door that reads "What is popular isn't always right; what is right isn't always popular," McNeal argues that money shouldn't always have the last word.

"Diversity is important," he says. "My primary concern is the value to the Navajo and Hispanic cultures. It was the sheep industry that built the early communities of the Southwest. It wasn't cattle; it was sheep. To many they're no longer valuable, so it's like, 'Let them go extinct.' "

All our eggs in one basket

McNeal argues that the Churro is genetically as well as culturally valuable. While other sheep breeds need to be pumped full of worming agents to keep them free of intestinal parasites, McNeal hasn't treated the Churro for worms in the 17 years he's worked with them. Ditto for foot rot. And their meat is lean.

McNeal isn't alone in wanting to preserve the biological diversity of livestock. Don Bixby, a veterinarian who directs the North Carolina-based American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, points out that 70 percent of the sheep in this country belong to four dominant breeds.

"We're putting all our eggs in one basket," says Bixby.

Bixby says that the dominant agricultural approach, which is supported by research at land-grant universities, has given the nation breeds that produce lots of meat and eggs. But it also negative side effects: Turkeys have become so heavy-breasted they can't lift themselves to mate; now they have to be artificially inseminated. Belgian Blue cattle nearly always have to deliver their calves by Caesarian section; black-faced sheep varieties produce lambs increasingly plagued by neurological disorders.

"We choose what we consider to be the best attributes," says Bixby. "Every time you make a selection, you also make a rejection. What we select is intentional; what we reject is unintentional. Over the long run, we've lost many characteristics that might be valuable in a changing agricultural scene."

McNeal insists that the mission of the land-grant universities, as established in the 1862 Morrill Act, is to help small producers. The 1982 Morrill Act established the land grants to "promote a sound and prosperous agriculture and rural life" and to "establish and maintain a permanent agriculture" through teaching, research and service. The land-grant university model worked, he says, until the late 1960s, when large corporations started dominating agriculture and providing funds for research.

McNeal still remembers the advice he received from a livestock extension specialist while he was teaching at Utah State in the early 1980s: Ignore the small producers and concentrate on the big corporate ones.

"That disturbs me," says McNeal. "I didn't come from a big ranch and most of my students didn't come from big ranches. I wasn't going to sell my soul to corporate agriculture. I think this country's moral fiber was built on small farms and ranches by men and women, not by corporations."

McNeal says his work with the Navajo has so poisoned his relationship with the university power structure so that he can no longer get funding to work with any sheep producers. "My allegiance is not just to the Navajo, but to the ranchers and farmers that live on the land," he says. "I'd apply for grants; I'd be denied funding. In 1990 or 1991 I said, 'To hell with it, I've got enough to do and I'm not going to play this game any more.' "

In the midst of this financial desert, McNeal found an oasis. Last fall he received a $100,000 federal grant (see accompanying story). The two-year project aims to show that raising all varieties of sheep on the reservation can be sustainable. The pilot project is primarily for demonstration purposes, but its implications could be huge: Nearly half of the reservation's 212,000 people are involved in raising sheep, and there are at least 20,000 active weavers there.

In this new project, like the 16-year-old Navajo Sheep Project, McNeal's goal is ambitious: to reverse centuries of destruction done to Navajo culture.

"Deep down, my message is cultural preservation, and the sheep is a tool to do that," he says. "I'd like to see the Navajo stay home, raise sheep and weave and make more money than they they would working for GM making wiring harnesses or something."

For more information contact the Navajo Sheep Project, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322-4850 (801/753-7950), or the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312 (919/542-5704).

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Land-grant professor offers Navajo herds a helping hand

Emily Chewning contributed to this report.

High Country News Classifieds
    Advance your career while completing vital forest and watershed restoration in wild and scenic northern Sierra!
    We are seeking a dedicated natural resources professional to lead FRLT's Conservation Easement Stewardship Program. This position is responsible for maintaining professional working relationships with...
    We are looking for a hands-on leader to bring our public programs to life in Sierra Valley and across the Watershed. This role offers a...
    The Matador Ranch Manager directs operations, communication, and maintenance for TNC Montana's Matador Ranch preserve with a focus on ecological management and restoration, grazing management,...
    Thrive Hood River (Oregon) is looking for a collaborative leader who cares deeply about Hood River's wild places, farmland and the quality of life in...
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities....
    The NFPPRD District Administrator provides leadership and managerial services associated with the Recreation District. Facilities include a seasonal pool, ballfields, bike trails, tennis/pickleball and skateboarding....
    The Executive Director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA) builds and leads a premiere North Dakota advocacy group that serves to protect the ecology of...
    Application deadline: Monday, March 6th, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST. Anticipated start date: May 15, 2023 About the position Are you ready to craft an...
    Application deadline: Monday, March 27, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST Anticipated start date: May 22 or May 30, 2023 About the position Do you want...
    About the Organization Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is a joint Canada-U.S. not-for-profit organization with a mission to connect and protect wildlife habitat from...
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a Virginia Spencer Davis fellow. The...
    The Grants Manager is a passionate information manager, fundraiser, and communicator versed in government and foundation grant and cooperative agreement writing and management, specifically to...
    The Communications Director is a passionate communications professional versed in conservation and regenerative agriculture, as well as nonprofit communications and data management across several program...
    The Education and Outreach Director is a people-oriented facilitator, communications wizard, and team leader who has experience designing, managing, and fundraising for land based educational...
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...