Saving heritage through sheepBy Jeff Hunter
Brent Stevens/HJLyle McNeal brought back the Navajo Churro sheep from near extinction through the Navajo Sheep Project.

Its one man who has a vision to do something, and then it becomes a crusade and a struggle to do it. His goal was to save the Navajo Churro sheep from extinction. He has succeeded in that against all of the forces.

Terrell Piechowski on Lyle McNeal from Local Heroes Changing America: Indivisible

Its a big book, rife with stories of people who have made a big difference in small parts of America.

Nestled in between the black-and-white photos of a Long Island midwifery practice and the efforts of a black-and-white community council in South Carolina lies the colorful Southwestern story of Dine bi iina.

And while theres no photo of Lyle McNeal, hes the reason Dine bi iina found its way into the pages of Local Heroes Changing America: Indivisible. Because without Lyle McNeal, there would have been no Navajo Sheep Project. And without the Navajo Sheep Project, the Churro sheep might just have been lost to the ages. And without those sheep, the Navajo people would have surrendered a large portion of their heritage.

McNeal, a professor in the Animal, Dairy & Veterinary Science Department at Utah State University, is credited with saving the Churro sheep from extinction. Brought over to North America by Coronado in 1540, the hearty sheep thrived in the Southwest and provided the Navajo people with both food and fiber for clothing. Known for their long, coarse wool and four-horned rams, the Churros likely numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the mid-1800s, before the U.S. government adopted policies which led to the near destruction of the breed.

By the 1970s there were just over 400 Churro sheep left on the Navajo Reservation.

Thats when McNeal got involved in turning back time.

Lyle McNeals father, Darrell, was an aviator who barnstormed with Charles Lindbergh for a season, and later flew with the Army Air Corps before and during World War II. In order to be as close to Darrell as possible, the family moved to California just prior to Lyles birth.

It was in the Golden State that Lyle developed his love of both flying and animals.

We lived on a farm, he says. The area was very rural in those days, and I learned to fly at a young age.

McNeal spent three years in the Air Force flying large, propeller-driven aircraft like the C-124 Globemaster cargo plane. He went on to attend California Polytechnic State College at Pomona and graduated in 1964. After earning his masters degree at the University of Nevada-Reno, McNeal returned to California to teach at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.

It was while serving as the advisor to the animal science club there in 1972 that he first encountered the Churro sheep which would change his life.

We were out on a ranch near Salinas looking at some paint horses when the rancher just happened to mention, We have these, too. Do you want to look at em? McNeal recalls.

I said, Sure, why not.

The sheep, it turned out, were actually prey for Hollywood movie stars and big wigs. The ranchers two sons were both prop men in the motion picture industry, and theyd bring folks up from Southern California and allow them to hunt the Churros for their unique racks.

That was my first face-to-face encounter with them, McNeal says. Going through school I had heard about them and learned about them in sheep classes, but everything I was told was that were unimproved, scrubby and not worth it, and that we did (the Navajos) a favor by giving them the improved model.

I found out something different.

A few years later, McNeal got very serious about resurrecting the Churro breed. Although he had a few of the sheep in California, he decided to go to the Southwest and seek out more Churros in the areas where Kit Carson couldnt go. McNeal had his greatest success in southeastern Utah in such out-of-the-way places as Navajo Canyon, Piute Canyon and No Mans Mesa.

I went to some very remote areas where it might take you all day to hike to the bottom of a canyon to get to a flock, he says. And it would take us a day to get back out while carrying a sheep on our back.

A couple of years after beginning the project in earnest at Cal Poly, McNeal accepted a new position at Utah State. Although he was allowed to bring the Churros along and house them at USU, the sheep project had to be privately funded.

But through donations of money and equipment, and by working during his vacation time, weekends, school breaks and summers, McNeal managed to keep the Navajo Sheep Project moving forward, even after clashes and lawsuits with USU over the operation.

Through the years weve worked with close to 1,400 families, and placed close to 6,000 sheep, he says.

Lyle McNeal has lived a Forrest Gump-type of life.

A descendant of Hugh McNeal, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he met John Wayne in the early 70s, played a cavalry

See SHEEP on A12

officer in the 1978 motion picture The Winds of Kitty Hawk, and broke bread with the cast of Bonanza while living in Nevada.

Robert Redford serves on the advisory council of the Navajo Sheep Project and has Churros on his ranch in New Mexico. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were regular contributors. Hugh Downs and the late Anne Morrow Lindbergh have been involved, and McNeal spent a few days with his childhood hero, Sir Edmund Hillary, after both were honored by the Lindbergh Foundation in 1988.

Weve met some really neat, wonderful people, McNeal says.

The most important person to come along, however, is his wife, Nancy. The two first met while both were college students in Southern California. Lyle was serving as the assistant manager of a nearby ranch when Nancy and a group from her school visited for a conference.

We started talking about horses, Nancy recalls. He talked about his aunts ranch in Montana, while I talked about my horse. I had found that most guys like quarter horses, but his aunt and uncle raised Arabians and my horse was an Arabian, so we had that in common.

As one might imagine, Nancy and Lyles first date consisted of riding horses. Since then, the couple has raised eight children as well as a Navajo foster daughter, despite the challenges of running the Navajo Sheep Project.

It was hard on our family, Nancy admits. But we took the younger kids with us whenever we could. Our oldest daughter, however, often had to hold down the fort when we were gone, and she likes to say that she raised eight children by herself.

Nancy says shes spoken with many people who credit her husband with encouraging them or their children to get an education and attend college despite their relative poverty. She says the Navajos also appreciate the way Lyle will get manure on his boots, wrassle sheep, talk to them about hay or fix their fences.

Theyre really amazed that a college professor would come out and even give them the time of day, Nancy adds. They just cant believe that Lyle would spend so much of his time with these very humble people and care about them so much.

Lyle McNeals grandfather worked for William Cody and served as the head wrangler of Buffalo Bills Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World. During that time he got to know many of the Plains Indians in the show, including Sitting Bull.

One day he shared his feelings with young Lyle.

My granddad told me, Lyle, the Indians got a bad deal in this country. If you do anything in this life, do something to pay back the Indians for those wrongs. I must have been about eight or nine at the time, but that stuck with me.

I couldnt bring back the buffalo because another guy did that, McNeal says,but this is very similar. This was the bison to this people.

With the salvation of the Churros, the Navajo people have recovered a large part of their heritage. The sheep provide them with a link to the past, as well as food and fiber for making the rugs that are a vital part of their economy. But then, McNeals life is now so intertwined with that of his Navajo brothers and sisters, that their past has become his past and their prosperity is also his prosperity.

His salvation right now, as a man, as a human being, is that he has made contact morally, spiritually, with the heart, with some Navajo people, and theyre the ones that are supporting him, Terrell Piechowski says in Local Heroes.

Theyre the ones that understand what he does and the importance of it. This is what keeps Lyle going his Navajo family.