Navajo family fighting to stay on land that was first home to hundreds, then a national monument

By Felicia Fonseca

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 21 2014 1:19 p.m. MDT

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.

Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. — 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 forces cold air from the ground and 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 a sign of wealth, was an everyday task.

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