In the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived and subsequently conquered the peaceful pueblo Indian cultures of what is now New Mexico and the American Southwest, the Navajo or Dine peoples which then lived north of the pueblos were seldom if ever seen by the Spanish and known mostly through the Pueblo Indian stories and encounters (often stories of raids by the Navajo on the pueblos) related by the Pueblo tribes.

The Navajo--who may have come together as an amalgamation of several tribal and clan cultures of the Southern Plains to form their own distinctive culture less than one hundred years before the Spanish Conquest-- are linguistic relatives (Athapascan) of the Apache and are generally considered to have had, in the 16th century, a culture more similar to Plains nomadic hunter-raiders than to the Pueblo sedentary-agrarian cultures.

The Pueblo tribes grew cotton and wove blankets and garments on a distinctive pueblo loom hundreds of years before the Spanish arrived (these weaving skills perhaps brought up by Indians from what is now Mexico and Central America), yet it was the Spanish who first introduced sheep to the Southwest.

Photo: Navajo weaver c.1900-1920 

 

The earliest sheep brought to the Southwest by the Spanish was the Churro, a small sheep with very long silky, smooth stapled wool perfect for weaving and in a variety of natural shades: dark brown, tan and cream. Rarely used today, despite many breeding attempts, the Churro's few modern descendants seem to lack in their wool the length and silkiness, sheen and feel that distinguish the pre-1900 breed. (Photo: modern, shorter wool "Churro")

Photo: Modern Churro Sheep

(Brief Side Note: After  Col. Kit Carson and the US government  moved all Navajo  on the Long Walk of 1864  to the Bosque Redondo Reservation in New Mexico where they were kept until 1868 most of the original Navajo Churro sheep had been killed or died from harsh conditions. The surviving Churro sheep, and those later brought up from Mexico, were bred with Merino sheep and long-haired English breeds but by the 1930's some Navajo rugs were less consistent in wool quality as some breeds were introduced by the government later to produce more meat but had greasy wool that was hard to clean which lead to some rugs being too thick, coarse or "nubby". Continuing wool projects throughout the reservation continue through today as top-quality hand-spun wool is always in high demand.)