REINEKE FORD   ||   NEWS UPDATES

Navajo woman family’s last link to monument land

Comment: Off

In this March 10, 2014 photo, Stella Peshlakai speaks about her family history at the Wupatki National Monument, Ariz. The Peshlakai descendants are fighting to gain residency rights on land their ancestors settled before the creation of the monument. Decades before an expanse of grassland and pueblo ruins in northern Arizona was declared a national monument, it was home to hundreds of Navajo who lived amid the sandstone rocks, canyons and scrub brush. As they left the land over the years, Peshlakai became the sole Navajo tenant. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

In this March 10, 2014 photo, Stella Peshlakai speaks about her family history at the Wupatki National Monument, Ariz. The Peshlakai descendants are fighting to gain residency rights on land their ancestors settled before the creation of the monument. Decades before an expanse of grassland and pueblo ruins in northern Arizona was declared a national monument, it was home to hundreds of Navajo who lived amid the sandstone rocks, canyons and scrub brush. As they left the land over the years, Peshlakai became the sole Navajo tenant. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

In this March 10, 2014 photo, Navajo elder Stella Peshlakai Smith, 89, stands outside a traditional dwelling on her homestead at Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona. The National Park Service, which manages the monument, and the Peshlakai family are at odds over the family’s pursuit of residency in the vast expanse of grassland and pueblo ruins. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

This March 10, 2014 photo shows pueblos at Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona. The National Park Service, which manages the monument, and a Navajo family are at odds over the family’s pursuit of residency in the vast expanse of grassland and pueblo ruins. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

This photo taken March 10, 2014, shows a sign marking the entrance of Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona. The National Park Service, which manages the monument, is at odds with a Navajo family pursuing residency in the vast expanse of grassland and pueblo ruins. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

In this March 6, 2014 photo, James Peshlakai, who was born at Wupatki National Monument, poses for a photo at his home in Cameron, Ariz. The National Park Service, which manages the monument, and the Peshlakai family are at odds over the family’s pursuit of residency in the vast expanse of grasslands and pueblo ruins. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

Buy AP Photo Reprints

WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. (AP) — Before an expanse of grassland and pueblo ruins in northern Arizona was declared a national monument, it was home to hundreds of Navajos whose ancestors returned to settle the area after a forced march to an eastern New Mexico internment camp.

Slowly, the Navajo families left Wupatki National Monument too, either voluntarily or under pressure by the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate private use of the public land it managed. Only one Navajo woman remains.

When 89-year-old Stella Peshlakai Smith dies, her residency permit dies with her, ending forever the Navajo presence at Wupatki.

The Peshlakais have vowed to fight for the land surrounded by the Little Colorado River valley, snow-capped mountains and towering mesas, where their sheep once grazed freely. Support for the family is mounting among state and tribal officials, but it’s up to Congress to decide whether they can stay.

“This family has had a homestead there for generations and generations, years, and we want that to be made right,” Navajo Nation lawmaker Walter Phelps said.

Smith estimates that dozens of extended members of her family would move back if given the chance.

An exhibit at the Wupatki visitors center highlights the struggle between the Peshlakais and the Park Service, and hints at the broader story of American Indian ancestral lands across the country that have become public property.

One 1970 letter on display is from the Park Service to a former U.S. senator from Arizona. It says: “At no time have the Navajos who grazed within the monument had any title in the land. … In the absence of appropriate legislation, these lands could not be surrendered to the Peshlakai family. We believe such legislation would not be in the public interest.”

It’s the same position that monument Superintendent Kayci Cook Collins takes today. She said tribal members connected to Wupatki are able to conduct ceremonies there, and the Peshlakai family can visit Smith’s homestead. But reserving property for the Peshlakais could invite other tribes, whose ancestors built pueblos and traded goods at Wupatki, to lay claim to the land.

“In general, units of the National Park Service are not managed to hold private residences on public land,” she said. “The situation the National Park Service tried to be sensitive to does not exist for the other families.”

Smith was born at Wupatki a month before it became a national monument, and was raised there by her father, Clyde Peshlakai, who acted as the monument’s custodian. Clyde Peshlakai is credited with discovering the Wupatki “blowhole,” a geologic feature that either forces cold air from the ground or sucks in warm air. His burial site is a two-room stone house visible from the road that loops around the monument.

Along the rugged road that leads to Smith’s home are reminders of Navajo homesteads: old sheep corrals, wooden logs pitched for a sweat lodge and a traditional Navajo dwelling where Smith’s great-grandfather, Peshlakai Etsidi, is buried. Etsidi was among thousands of Navajos who endured cold, disease and starvation in the U.S. government’s attempt to relocate them to Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner, N.M., in what’s known as the Long Walk.

Etsidi returned to northern Arizona around 1870 after the Navajos signed a treaty with the federal government that defined a reservation for the tribe.

The reservation did not include land that would become Wupatki National Monument, where Etsidi and other Navajos resettled. Their children made a playground of its low-lying grasslands, sandstone outcroppings and scrub brush. Herding sheep, a staple of Navajo tradition and

Comments

comments

About the Author