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History & Cultures

Dust Bowl — Slaughter of the Navajo Sheep

The Spanish introduced Navajo-Churro sheep into North America during the 1540s. The Navajo obtained sheep from the early settlers by trade and/or raid. The sheep had a significant effect on Navajo life and transformed them from a nomadic hunter and gather culture to one of farming and herding. Over the years the herds grew tremendously and many managed to survive the Navajo Wars of the early 1860s.

By the 1930s the U.S. government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted a policy to reduce the large Navajo herds, stating that an acre of land could only support six sheep. BIA agencies held meetings with Navajo men telling them how many sheep the land would support. Why the agencies met with the Navajo men is not known, since the sheep belonged to the Navajo women. The Navajo people had no say in this decision made between the Soil and Conservation Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Initially, the Navajo were paid for their sheep as the government slaughtered them, but as the reductions went on sheep, goats and horses were simply shot and their carcasses left to rot in the fields. In all, the federal agents killed more than 250,000 sheep and goats and more than 10,000 horses belonging to the Navajo people. The Stock Reduction Program caused starvation on the Navajo Reservation.

When new breeds of sheep were introduced to the Reservation they were unable to thrive in the severe habitat and the quantity of their wool was not sufficient for Navajo weaving. Finally during the 1970s animals with the characteristics of the old churras were gathered and the Navajo-Churra Sheep Project founded. The breed has been saved from extinction and is again gaining in popularity.