DR. LYLE G. MCNEAL is a Carnegie Professor at Utah State University in the Animal, Dairy & Veterinary Science Department, School of Veterinary Medicine. He has taught there since 1979. Before that, he was faculty at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. His Navajo Sheep Project is credited with helping to rescue, save, and restore the native Churro sheep to the Navajo and bringing back a traditional way of life. He began the Project in 1972 after discovering a small flock of Churro at a ranch near Gonzales, California. Most of the breed had been eliminated during the 1930s government stock reduction program.
Dr. McNeal and his wife, Nancy, have secured grants from the Charles Lindbergh Foundation many other foundations, and thousands of private donors to support the Navajo Sheep Project and protect Navajo traditions, including weaving, wool marketing, and sheep shearing. They have worked with the Tribal Council, the Utah Wool Growers Association, and the Utah Wool Marketing Association. Dr. NcNeal has taught shearing workshops at the Pinehill School on the Ramah Navajo Reservation that was built by architects from Harvard and Princeton. Dr. McNeal also started the Sheep is Life Celebration originally at Utah State University in 1985, and since 1991 was moved to the Navajo Nation when Dine’ be’ iina’ (The Navajo Lifewa) non-profit was founded. Sheep is Life, now held annually in June at Dine’ College, Tsaile, Arizona, highlights all aspects of sheep herding and wool processing.
Both Lyle and Nancy gave freely of their time to talk about the importance of the Churro Sheep to the Navajo Nation and the political, cultural, and environmental ecosystem of the Southwest. For more information, visit: http://navajosheepproject.com/ and http://navajolifeway.org/sheep-is-life/
SEE: What is so special about the Churro sheep? And to the Navajo in particular? And what difference does that make to the rest of the world?
LM: The Churro are environmentally adapted to the ecosystem. [The Southwest United States]. I did some research comparing them to other breeds and they don’t get internal parasites. They’re genetically resistant to internal parasites, and contagious foot rot of sheep. So you don’t have to de-worm them with drugs. And they are resistant to contagious foot rot that other sheep can get in America. And they don’t get fat—they’re lean! They can eat plants that other sheep can’t eat and sustain life.
SEE: That’s particularly interesting because we do know that they came from Spain, right? Many, many generations ago.
LM: Right. But originally, Morocco.
SEE: Oh, Morocco—that makes more sense. Its climate is similar to the American Southwest.
LM: I’ve worked with the Moroccan Berbers. They were the herders in North Africa. I’ve brought them to the Reservation. They have so much in common [with the Southwest] that they just love going to the Reservation. And look at the map geographically. Morocco is close to Spain. I’ve had Spanish people tell me that the Berbers brought sheep to the American Southwest—took them from the Spanish.
SEE: How did you get involved with the Churro sheep in particular? How did you know about them? In Stacia Spragg-Braude’s book, To Walk in Beauty, it explains that you first encountered these sheep during a research mission in the Southwest. What was your project at that time, and how did you feel when you saw these sheep?
LM: It started when I was on the faculty in the Animal and Veterinary department at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo back in the late 1960s. I was the advisor to the Boots and Spurs Club, which was a student club, and I took them on field trips annually. We’d go out to visit farms and ranches owned by real people, families, not corporations. In 1972, in the spring, I took them up to Salinas to a ranch near there in the little town of Gonzales where a gentleman by the name of Buster Naegle and his sons had these very athletic wild-looking, four-horned rams and ewes. I got there with the students, loaded them off the bus, and we started hiking up some of the ranch property in the hills there. I looked at these sheep—I grew up with animals so I know about them—but this sheep, I’d never heard of much. He told me what these sheep were and where he got them. Apparently he bought them—and he had several hundred—at the auction in Fort Wingate, New Mexico, when the USDA Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory was being closed down in 1966. He really thought they were interesting. They were hardy and tough and so he thought they’d do well on his ranch.
SEE: And he didn’t know…
LM: He really didn’t know a lot about them. So when I got back to the campus in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly, I started doing some research. I knew about these sheep stations and government AG [Agriculture] stations because I had worked at them before, but this one in Fort Wingate was never talked about much. Even before the USDA closed it down there wasn’t much information. I got ahold of some of the scientists that were there and one of them gave me his data, his files, his pictures. It was a good thing because, in the end, ten years later, the government, threw all that stuff out and burned it. They moved all the information to Nebraska, and in ’76 they just burned it, threw it out, it wasn’t interesting to them.
I found out how sacred they were to the Navajo, the Diné, and my bells started ringing because my late grandfather was a fur trapper up in the Yukon. He almost died when he was checking his traps one winter after a wolverine attacked him. The tribe where he was trapping, the Athabaskan, saved his life. Took care of him and healed him.
Ever since I was a kid, I was always interested in the native people after he told me that story. One of the few things that stuck in my mind most of my life was that he said, ‘Lyle, if you can do anything good in your life, help the Native American people, help the Indians.’ But one thing he learned was how unfairly the white people had treated these Indians. I’ve lived on different reservations during my life and I’ve seen how unfairly they were treated, even my friends.
My uncle had a trading post in northern Minnesota on the Chippewa Ojibwa Reservation. I had a good friend when I was probably 10 years old. I’d go back and spend a few weeks with him, sometimes all summer, but he couldn’t sit with me when we’d go to the Saturday cinema. He couldn’t buy popcorn or a drink and he had to sit in a separate area of the cinema. They weren’t allowed to use the latrine or the toilets.
When I started doing research on the Navajo Churro they were down to less than 435. I found out that Kit Carson killed a lot of these sheep in Canyon de Chelly in 1863. And then, in 1933-34, the government started the “stock reduction” on the Navajo Reservation and the government Indian Commissioner – the Navajo told me they used to call him “Damn John Collier” because they hated him - John Collier told the Indians he hired and people that worked for him to ‘get rid of these sheep.’ He said that they were causing overgrazing and this new dam they were building on the Colorado they called ‘Boulder Dam’ [aka Hoover Dam] would be silted up prematurely because of the way the Navajos run their sheep. That obviously wasn’t true. I know about land use, management and grazing. That was created as an excuse to take away their [the Navajo] sustainable wealth, their independence, and make them government dependent.
They did this up until 1948. Their sacred sheep were targeted. The Navajos had just under two million sheep before they started and the families were pretty independent. They didn’t need government handouts. They [the government] used the tribal system to make them [the Navajo] rely on the white man.
And so in 1972, all these things were going on in my brain and I’m saying, ‘I’ve gotta do this. I know about sheep and I’ve gotta bring them back. I’ve got to start this project.’
I went back and asked Mr. Naegle if he would donate some of his ewes and at least two different rams so I wouldn’t have to worry about inbreeding. I wanted four-horned rams—a white one and a black one. I asked the University, ‘could you loan me some land to graze these sheep on until we get things going?’ They let me have some grazing land that they weren’t using anymore. I told them they didn’t have to hire any University people. I had students that could help me. So we got started. We named it the “Navajo Sheep Project” there at San Luis Obispo. I found out that these sheep would birth twice a year and give birth to twins and triplets. I didn’t have to use hormones like I had done at the USDA Sheep Stations. They didn’t need it!
SEE: They were attuned to the environment. Ready to come back!
LM: Yeah! They were prolific! During my first few years of the Navajo Sheep Project, I was trading and buying sheep. I kept a log of the areas where I got them. I didn’t want to inbreed. I wanted diversity so I developed different genetic lines, like, the four-horn line, a black wool line, a white wool line and then reddish brown, red mesa I call it. In 1982, I started to take sheep back to the Reservation. I already knew many people. They would cry, the elders would, when they saw me come down with sheep.
One of my main missions besides the saving the sheep was to establish trust with the Diné. I’m here, not from the government, I’m here as Dr. McNeal, a sheep person, to help you. That worked.
SEE: It’s so powerful, what you’ve done. Obviously it comes straight from your heart. So, thank you!
LM: Well, thank you, but I had battles along the way with white people over what I was doing.
SEE: No doubt. What were your obstacles?
LM: Some of the obstacles were initially, that Commissioner John Collier’s assistant, who worked on the stock reduction, contacted me by letter. He said, ‘What you’re doing is wrong. You’re taking the Navajo backwards. You shouldn’t be doing this. Stop it.’
And the Navajo people, and even some of the medicine men said, ‘No, we want these sheep. These are our sheep!’ And I said ‘I know.’ By then, I was at Utah State and the University said, ‘You have to raise your own money. We don’t think this is right. You should not be helping little old ladies in tennis shoes.’ Referring to the women, the matriarchal culture that took care of these flocks back then. And then they said other things. I was threatened and I was brought into a “monkey court” by some of the administrators. Then they took our property that we had built. The president of the University said they wanted our property and our grazing land because ‘we want to sell it so we can have money for the football team.’ At that time, we had hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and grants. We were doing very well. I had to file a lawsuit against the state of Utah and the University.
SEE: And you’re working for them, too.
LM: Yes. But they were going to take these sheep—and they weren’t mine, they belonged to the Diné and my spirit. They were going to take them up north to the slaughter house. Terminate them!
SEE: Oh no! What year was this?
LM: This was 1997. I had about 540 breeding sheep here. Every year I was taking down about 200 head to families who wanted them and had applied. We were fair and did not charge. Me, I’ve never made them pay. They were their sheep to begin with.
But, I have a friend in New Mexico, near Aztec, a gentleman I had talked to and he said, ‘If you need to, bring them down to my land.’ We loaded the sheep up the night before they were going to take them to the packing plant and kill them. It was up in Huerfano Canyon where the Navajos originally had land. And so we moved the whole flock overnight. The next morning my lawsuit was filed in Third District Court at Salt Lake City. The University took my retirement and my pay was cut by 25%. It was very difficult. I had to pay legal fees. My life savings were gone. They dragged it out five years before we went to trial.
Finally, we had a jury trial in Salt Lake City. I had some of my Navajo friends testify. They were aware of the things the University leaders had said that were wrong and racially as well as gender biased. After five days in court, the jury found the University guilty.
SEE: That’s amazing. That’s great.
LM: But, even though I had won, they claimed government immunity and they didn’t have to pay back my legal fees or my losses or anything. They said that if I wanted fees, my retirement and my life savings back, do this [sue them] again. Well I didn’t have any money left. The sheep were more important. They were forced to put me back on full time. A few years after that was over, everybody involved in that had left the University. They were gone. So things turned around. But then they said the Navajos don’t have big flocks, they’re not running a thousand or five thousand ewes. I said no they don’t, it’s a family venture, it’s a family culture, it’s their savings and their bank, it’s their liquidity, and it’s a culture. The white people are so detached from the Native Americans. You hear politicians talking about African Americans and Hispanics, but you never hear them talking about Native Americans. And they were here before us!
SEE: But it all comes back. What we put out there all comes back to us.
LM: Like you said, both of you said ‘service.’ And that’s what it is! We’re put here on earth to do good. And keep things in peace, harmony and balance. And yet some people don’t, do they?
SEE: I have another question for you. As I mentioned before, Stacia Spragg-Braude’s book, To Walk in Beauty: A Navajo Family’s Journey Home, mentions your Navajo Sheep Project. In it, she also describes your meeting with Goldtooth, the father of the family she wrote about. It was at the University of Minnesota where he was visiting his daughters, Sharon and Alta. You were giving a presentation about the reintroduction of the Churro sheep. Can you tell us, in your words, the story of how that happened?
LM: Yes. I was invited to come. I think it was the Hand Weaver’s Guild of America Conference up there at the University of Minnesota. Goldtooth and Mary [his wife] had walked by the door – the door was open and I had this big screen for this group I was presenting to in the dark. I had a lot of sheep pictures, the kind of sheep we were working with and saving and rescuing….and Goldtooth saw them. He stood there outside the room. I could see him standing. I didn’t know who it was. I knew it was a Navajo, and he just really, really liked them, so they went and got Alta and Sharon [Mary and Goldtooth didn’t speak English well and needed their daughters to translate] and came back down and they waited until I was done and we met for the first time.
We started talking and it all connected. Goldtooth said ‘Why, these are the real sheep!’ He asked, ‘Could you bring us some of these sheep?’ I said ‘Yes, that’s what they’re for. I’ll be down in your area anyway.’ I got them back into Churro sheepherding.
We became close, like family.
Mary and Goldtooth took me in as a son, even at my age. I felt loved and cared for. Alta, Sharon and Lena are sisters and I’m their brother. Mary taught me about herbal medicine because sometimes I got sick on the reservation. Elders would take me in their hogan and treat me, help me get better. I learned so much from them.
When they both passed away I spoke at their ceremonies. At the ceremony, the prayer said ‘We are all related.’ And they also say that in other traditional ceremonies of the Diné. It’s like saying ‘amen.’ That hit me. You don’t hear politicians talking like that.
SEE: In that same vein, what can white people learn from the native populations? What would you say are some of the important things?
LM: I think one of the things that we (whites) lack is a holistic life. This is part of the Navajo world view—father sky, mother earth, we’re all related—that comment—and learning from your elders. How many kids today—white kids—learn from their elders? And are taught. They’re detached!
I’ve always appreciated how, in the Navajo culture—though it is diminishing with some of the millennial Navajo with iPhones and computers—the grandchildren were close to their grandparents and the parents were close to their parents. They lived close together in harmony and peace. Mostly. Granted, alcoholism has been a problem for a number of years, but I saw fewer problems there than I do in a lot of white communities. [Also] the appreciation of non-material items. I’m told so many times to bury the umbilical cord of a son in the sheep corral, so he will be a good shepherd. Bury the umbilical cord of the daughter under the loom so she’ll be a good weaver. Even the way the loom is designed—to have contact vertically, with mother earth and father sky—is so spiritually solid to me. The kinaaldas for the girls who reach puberty celebrate these big changes in their physiology. And what do we do for our girls? Nothing. No celebration.
There is something else about boarding schools. Some of them still—my generation down there—still have bad feelings about the boarding school era. I don’t like that idea of taking kids away from their family for education, I just don’t. Fortunately, now there’s good schools there.
We have all these environmentalist movements, but talk to a Native American, especially a Navajo who depends on ‘Mother Earth’ and their sheep! You’ve gotta take care of the land if you’re going to take care of you. That’s what I was taught.
SEE: I talked to a Native American family who were angry about the government campaigns to tell the Navajo how to eat so ‘you don’t get overweight—here’s the dietary guidelines.’ They said, ‘just give us our natural lifestyle with our sheep and we have no problem whatsoever with our health, our diet or anything.’ I remember distinctly that she said that.
LM: That is correct. That’s because the government is really behind ruining their land. They took away their family grazing systems and it’s too politicized now, the grazing committees. It’s very difficult for families to have enough land to graze their sheep like they did traditionally. This again, is your federal government acting through the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]. People who know nothing about raising sheep and goats are telling them how they should do it. That’s hypocrisy.
It was Alta’s, Sharon’s and my idea to form the non-profit Diné be ‘iinå [The Navajo Lifeway] which hosts the Sheep is Life Celebration. I started it in ’85 at Utah State University. The Navajos that would come up loved it. We try and make it a cross-cultural experience, too. Some years we have Hispanics there, some years Anglos. I’m trying to see if we can’t get the Basques to come. I’ve got a lot of Basque friends. And in Arizona where you are, there were a lot of Basque at one time too.
SEE: Lyle, where in Mexico are your contacts for your sheep?
LM: We worked with the governor’s office in Chihuahua. For many years we’d get a truckload of rams to go down to the Tarahumaras. They are related to the Navajo and the Apache. When you look at the weavings of the Tarahumara and the Diné, there’s much similarity in their weaving styles and their art. I’ve gone through collections at the Heard Museum and collections up in Santa Fe at the International Folk Art Museum. I’ve looked at tapestries of the different cultures. The Tarahumara and the Navajo have a lot in common. You can see that.
SEE: So the Tarahumara are using the Churro sheep as well.
SEE: That’s another circle.
LM: See, we are all related!