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 12:00 a.m. MDT

But the Park Service feared overgrazing and asked Navajos to move their sheep off the monument at times and imposed herd limits. Members of the Peshlakai family said they were forced to move beyond the Little Colorado River.

Elsie Tohannie said she was in her late teens or early 20s when a former monument superintendent told her the family couldn't live there.

Now 82, she resides with her family in Flagstaff but has vivid memories of Wupatki. She moves her hands as if creating scenes of the landscape that her family says is the source of countless stories of her childhood.

"Absolutely it bothers me," she said of leaving the land where she grew up. "It's something no one can recognize, the pain."

Another family member, James Peshlakai, has no desire to return to a place under Park Service control. He was born about a quarter-mile from the Wupatki visitor center in 1945. He recalls his mother, Katherine, being evicted while he was in school in Flagstaff and hitchhiking to the monument to find her alone with her sheep. He said he and his siblings fashioned a shelter from tree branches and blankets that they lived in during the winter before going elsewhere.

By that time, Katherine Peshlakai had separated from Clyde Peshlakai. James Peshlakai said he later intervened when the Park Service asked his father to sign a land-use permit, but the elder Peshlakai declined, saying "I want this land for my children."

James Peshlakai's daughter, Democratic state Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, has introduced a resolution in the Legislature for Arizona to declare its support of the Peshlakai family and their continued residency within the national monument. The Navajo Nation Council has passed a similar resolution.

"Sadly, it's a story typical of every Native American family in the Americas," she said.

No request to allow the Peshlakais to live at the monument has been submitted to Congress, but the family has an advocate in Democratic U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. The congresswoman said that while federal land-management policies have evolved over the years, "we cannot forget that the people who have emerged with the land are inseparable."

Across the West, few American Indians remain on lands that have become iconic tourist destinations managed by the federal government. The Grand Canyon set aside a housing complex for Havasupai tribal members displaced by the national park. Navajos also live at Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, but the land is Navajo-owned, and the monument is jointly managed by the tribe. The 38 sites in four states that make up the Nez Perce National Historical Park include reservation land.

Smith has a rare letter of authorization from the Park Service allowing lifetime residency at Wupatki. Her daughter, Helen Peshlakai Davis, gave up a right to pursue residency at the monument in exchange for land north of Flagstaff.

Davis said the Park Service didn't fully explain what she was signing, and she contends the agreement should be invalidated. In Navajo belief, she is tied to Wupatki land because her umbilical cord is buried there beneath a sheep corral.

The Park Service believes the agreement should stand.

While the Peshlakai family once had free reign of the monument's more than 35,000 acres, Smith now lives on a much smaller plot without the sheep she once had but with amenities like electricity and running water that she grew up without. Smith said any Navajo family who traces their ancestry to the clans that settled the area should be welcomed back.

"It belongs to them ... everything that's here," Smith said through a Navajo interpreter.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere