by natasha kaye johnson | ap/gallup independent december 13, 2006 window rock, ariz.

(ap) - for the navajo, sheep symbolize the good life, living in harmony and balance on the land. the organization dine bi'iina, or sheep is life, want to keep that concept alive and strong. recently the nonprofit group hosted the fourth annual navajo churro ram exchange, where sheep producers brought in their churro rams to exchange with other producers. the event allows producers to switch out healthy rams so that they can obtain new bloodlines for their flock and prevent disease and deformities within the flock. the exchange was hosted in tees nos pos, chinle, and ganado. "it's important for us to carry this breed," said jay begay jr., event organizer. in the mid-1600's, the navajo _ or dine, as they refer to themselves _ acquired the churro sheep from the spanish. their lifestyle of hunting and gathering changed to farming and pastoralism. today, sheep are still very much a part of the culture. "it all ties back to tradition with the original breed that we had in the old days," said begay. begay said there is a sacredness that the ram has to the land. "in those days, our elders and our grandparents made a living off that breed with the fiber," said begay. "some of the best weavings found in the museums are from the churro wool." unlike wool from modern commercial breeds, wool from primitive carpet-wool sheep such as churro is low in lanolin. that means it doesn't require water for washing or take much carding, making it ideal for rug weavers. keeping the churro sheep healthy and high in numbers is integral to keeping the practice of navajo culture, organizers said. "it's so we can continue the long tradition of raising sheep and working with fibers," said racheal dahozy, an organizer. because of this, the organization provides technical assistance to navajo shepherds and weavers, like the exchange program and various workshops. the workshops do not just attract navajo people, begay said, but people from throughout the world who have an interest in dyeing and weaving. while the tie that the navajo have with the churro sheep is strong, there was a time when it was becoming extinct. in the 1970's, there were only 450 of the original churro sheep. in 1977, lyle mcneal, a professor at the university of utah, recognized the cultural impact the breed had and collected as many

churro sheep he could find from the southwest region. "he took the sheep back to the university and started his own little farm," said dahozy. mcneal reproduced as many sheep as he could, and then eventually redistributed them to the navajo. his efforts continued and later became founded as the navajo sheep project, which hosting the first "sheep is life" event in utah. this is the organization's 15th year as a nonprofit and the group has grown immensely. those involved with the organization range from the young to the elderly. in 2002, the navajo sheep project dispersed 400 churro to the people. begay estimates that the number of sheep has increased about four times since the project began, with a minimum of about 1,600 sheep. though the sheep are no longer in danger of becoming extinct, dahozy said, not very many navajo sheepherders have the churro sheep. those who do are finding creative ways to market them with the help of the organization. last fall, the organization helped form a lamb co-op, where sheep producers can sell their lambs to restaurants. begay said the co-op began with one person, but caught the attention of other sheep producers. la posada restaurant in winslow, ariz., is one restaurant that serves lamb from the co-op. "we promote our animals as all natural," said begay, unlike other livestock which feed on proteins and hormones. begay said churro meat has some health advantages and is a lot leaner than other breeds. most importantly, though, is that the organization is helping ensure that sheep will continue to be a cornerstone to the identity of the dine.

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