This article from Handwoven January/February 2021 is from our new department, "Stepping Up", a department dedicated to people and organizations making a difference in the fiber world. Read about Nikyle Begay who is helping to preserve the Navajo-Churro breed. - Susan
Nikyle Begay is a shepherd, a weaver, and a member of the Diné tribe. (Editor’s note: Diné is the name for the tribe commonly referred to as Navajo.) While it might be easy to see these as three separate identities, for Nikyle they are inseparable and each aspect informs the other, especially as Nikyle has chosen to raise Navajo-Churro sheep, a breed intrinsically tied to the history of the Diné people in more ways than just a name.
“The Navajo-Churro sheep are resilient, like my ancestors who’ve been raising them for centuries,” explains Nikyle. “Stories are still told about how the government burned many sheep and goats alive to stop my ancestors from wandering their ancestral lands and passing borders implemented on them. When this didn’t work, the Diné were removed and marched to Bosque Redondo, an internment camp in eastern New Mexico. To get my ancestors to submit, their fields, homes, sheep, goats, and orchards were all burned.”
When the Diné were returned to the land, they were given two sheep per family, mostly white-faced commercial breeds that didn’t do nearly as well in the tough climate and terrain of the Southwest. Many Diné began raising Churro sheep again until the 1930s, when the U.S. government again intervened after deciding, as Nikyle puts it, that the Diné had “too many of the wrong sheep.” Once again, the sheep were rounded up and slaughtered, and the owners were sometimes compensated mere pennies a head for the sheep. Fortunately, brave Diné families hid flocks of Navajo-Churro in the mountains, which is why the breed still exists today. Shepherds such as Nikyle are not just keeping the breed alive but are making more people aware of how special the fiber really is.
Nikyle grew up watching their paternal grandmother raise sheep and weave. “I’ve always admired her strength, strong traditional beliefs, and work ethic,” they explain. “I’ve always associated these traits with raising sheep, so at a young age, I decided to continue her tradition, as well as the tradition of her mother and grandmother, by raising sheep and weaving.” Later, Nikyle was introduced to the Churro breed by a teacher, and at age thirteen, they started their own flock.
It is 17 years later, and Nikyle’s love and appreciation of Navajo-Churro sheep has only grown. “Personally, I love the beauty of these sheep,” says Nikyle. “They each have their own distinct look and personality, setting them apart from other cookie-cutter breeds that all look like clones of themselves. I am a weaver, so I breed for natural-colored wool. This actually gets the closet scientist in me going, because breeding for coat color is an actual science. . . . I enjoy this a lot, but I also just enjoy the sheep themselves; they bring me peace.”
Nikyle also rebukes the commonly held belief that Navajo-Churro yarn is far too coarse to be good for anything besides rugs. “I strive to breed sheep that have a soft handle. The wool might not be next-to-skin soft, but it’s soft enough to weave durable saddle blankets and blankets that have been proven to stand the test of time,” they explain. “In recent years, I’ve noticed that the sheep are being misrepresented from what is actually raised on the reservation. I’ll be reading a book, browsing a website or social media, and I’ll see a photo of a ‘Navajo-Churro’ sheep that looks nothing like what we have here in the Southwest. I’ve also seen bad reviews on their wool and temperament. So, I’d like the mainstream to know that we, the Diné, still have these sheep, that there is real heritage tied to this breed of sheep. And that we still strive to raise quality animals.”
To learn more about Nikyle, their flock, and their weaving, follow them on Instagram @navajoshepherd.