Professor makes life work of
preserving Navajo way of life, including sheep
By Rachel Christensen
December 11, 2008 | Lyle McNeal's office at Utah State
University is a collection of organized chaos. Books
overflow from the shelves of his tiny work space and
several stacks of papers litter his desk, computer stand,
and virtually any unused surface area. Figurines, stuffed
animals, and pictures of sheep of all shapes and colors
peek out from every corner. One sheep animal sheep wears
a Santa Claus hat. Another sheep figurine acts as a
candy dispenser. Not a single corner of his office is
unadorned by some representation of sheep. He is, after
all, a specialist.
McNeal, USU agriculture professor and sheep and wool
specialist, has lived his life in pursuit of his passions:
teaching, preserving the native Navajo-Churro sheep
and correcting what he sees as injustices to the Navajo
McNeal has been dedicated to education ever since
his elementary school days. He had to walk 1.8 miles
one way to school every day, and the soles of his shoes
would wear out. He would then put cardboard on the bottom
of his shoes to prevent holes in his socks.
McNeal first discovered the power of an inspirational
teacher and his love of history in Mrs. Garret's 4th
"I loved her, she lighted the fire in my soul for
history," McNeal said. "(Kids) need a good teacher to
light that flame."
McNeal grew up on a farm during World War II. Food
and money were scarce and there was no such thing as
allowance money for the children. By age 11, McNeal
was economically self-sufficient because of the job
that kept him working nearly full time. He also went
to school and completed his chores on the household
Even with his job, there wasn't enough money for things
like toys, and his grandpa made most of the toys McNeal
played with. Trains fascinated McNeal and the one toy
he always wanted was an electric toy train.
McNeal grew up listening to the singing cowboy poets
Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as well as Tim McCoy and Iron
Eyes Cody. Later in his life, in 1977, McNeal would
meet McCoy, his favorite cowboy, and McCoy would congratulate
him for his work with the Navajo-Churro sheep.
McNeal's love for education and desire to leave the
impoverished conditions of his childhood led him to
Cal Poly where he supported himself through school.
He graduated with a bachelor's degree in animal husbandry
in 1963. Then in 1966 he received his master's in genetics
and range management in Reno, Nevada. While working
on this degree he conducted research and taught undergraduate
By the end of the 1960s McNeal's friends and family
began urging him to try teaching. He had started on
his doctorate and was running out of money to take care
of his wife and kids. When he heard about a job opening
at Cal Poly Pumona teaching veterinary science, he interviewed
for the position and was hired.
"We picked up our sheep and horses and moved out,"
In 1978 McNeal earned his doctorate from Cal Poly.
During his sabbaticals, he taught at USU. McNeal finished
his last required year teaching at Cal Poly and headed
to Utah to stay.
McNeal has taught at USU for 30 years. He earned the
2003 national Teacher of the Year in Agriculture award
and the 2005 national Faculty Adviser of the Year award.
In 2007 he was honored as the Carnegie Professor of
the Year, an annual award given to only one professor
in each state.
Reflecting on his teaching acknowledgements and awards,
McNeal said, "Hey, maybe I did find my niche."
McNeal draws on his experiences in the field of agriculture
and as a student to teach his classes. When McNeal was
in elementary school, teachers would often punish their
students by calling them to the front of the room and
spanking them with a paddle. McNeal was called to the
front of the room once, and it taught him to be quiet
"To this day I'm pretty tough to my students, but
I don't spank them," said McNeal who is particularly
strict with cell phones and arriving to class on time.
"You can have a pleasant classroom and still have behavioral
McNeal requires students to put into practice the
concepts they learn in the classroom. His students go
on many field trips and learn from several hands-on
experiences. The students also spend up to 10 nights
during the semester caring for pregnant ewes and helping
them give birth.
"You can talk about it, but you've got to do it and
get dirty and get manure on your boots," he said.
McNeal's other passion lies with saving the Navajo-Churro
sheep breed from extinction in a mission called the
Navajo Sheep Project, a project he is known for nationally.
The Navajo-Churro was the first breed of sheep brought
to America by conquistadors. The Navajo adopted this
breed of sheep, and the sheep helped shape their culture
into what it is today through art, wool use and sacred
The project meant McNeal, along with some of his students,
would camp out in remote areas and search for sheep.
They would collect the sheep and take them to USU to
breed and take care of them. At the start of his project,
fewer than 400 members of the species were alive. The
project received a lot of recognition and support.
"John Wayne supported me, Robert Redford was behind
me," McNeal said.
McNeal helped Wayne create his own ranch and the two
wrote each other until Wayne's death in 1979.
In 1981 McNeal started returning the sheep, now several
thousands of them, to the Navajo. McNeal sees this project
as a way to give back to the natives who have had so
much taken from them.
"I grew up around Indians and we (white Americans)
mistreated them so I was going to do something right,"
he said. "For what we've done to them I'm ashamed, but
it's not over."
In June of 1983, McNeal gave a presentation about
the Navajo-Churro project in St. Paul, Minnesota. The
Navajo family of Mary and Goldtooth Begay was also invited
to demonstrate weaving and the Native American culture.
Goldtooth was searching for a restroom when he walked
past the auditorium where McNeal was giving his presentation.
Even though Goldtooth didn't understand English, he
recognized the sheep on the slides. Goldtooth didn't
continue his search for the bathroom but instead brought
his family to McNeal's auditorium. After his presentation,
Goldtooth's daughters introduced themselves and their
parents to McNeal.
"It was so synergistic," McNeal said. "I didn't have
to understand Navajo and he didn't have to understand
English. We just bonded then."
McNeal helped the Begay family and through the sheep
project was able to give them Navajo-Churro sheep of
their own. In 1984 the family asked McNeal to become
a member of their family and McNeal gratefully accepted.
"I didn't have a good family upbringing," McNeal said.
"To this day I still don't talk to my mother. She was
abusive. I never had a caring mother like Mary (Begay)."
The Begay family taught McNeal the culture and he
learned cross-cultural respect. He also received a rare
honor from Mary when she took him out into the wilderness
and trained him as a medicine man. McNeal considers
this training to be the equivalent of another college
degree. In return, McNeal passed on much of his knowledge
of sheep to the family such as how to use a sheep crook.
Goldtooth died in 2005 at the age of 106, and Mary
died one year later. McNeal told his children that when
the day comes that he passes on he wants to be buried
on the Navajo reservation next to Goldtooth and Mary.
McNeal plans to continue teaching and then hopes to
retire to his property in Colorado. The property is
close to his Navajo family as well as the Durango and
Silverton Narrow Gauge train that McNeal has ridden
more than 300 times.
"I'm a junkie, I've got to ride that train a few times
a year," McNeal said.
He first rode the train in 1950 and has now ridden
it so many times that he has become its ambassador and
gets free passes. The train ride incorporates everything
that is important to McNeal and has sculpted the man
he is today: memories of his past, beautiful canyons
and wildlife scenery, sheep pastures and sacred Navajo