Navajo Family Fights To Stay At National Monument

April 23, 2014
Laurel Morales
Stella Peshlakai Smith is the last Navajo allowed to live at Wupatki National Monument.

In the 1800s the Navajo moved among various camps across vast areas to herd sheep and farm. A few families settled on what is today a national monument. And one family would like to remain, but the National Park Service won’t allow it.

At Wupatki National Monument the contrasts are great — harsh winds blow but ancient sandstone ruins remain in tact. Sage shrubs take root in the black lava rock. Stella Peshlakai Smith, 89, shuffles around her yard in white tennis shoes and a long traditional Navajo skirt. A stone hogan built by her father almost a hundred years ago stands next to her modern home.

Five generations have buried their umbilical cords in this land, a Navajo tradition that ties them here. After the U.S. Army forced thousands of Navajos to walk 400 miles to Fort Sumner in the 1860s, the Peshlakais settled here. Stella was born a year before the land became a national monument. And the Park Service has given her special permission to stay.

“She wants to live out through her life here until her day comes,” Stella’s daughter, Helen Peshlakai Davis, translated. “Her grandkids, she would like to see them continue living here, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren.”

Laurel Morales
Stella Peshlakai Smith grew up in this house on Wupatki National Monument. She and her family now live in one built in the 1970s.

Davis, her husband and two kids live with Stella on Wupatki. But the Park Service has told them they will have to leave when Stella dies.

“It’s not fair,” Davis said. “What I don’t like is why the Park Service is telling us we cannot live here because this is our home. This is why we’re fighting for it.”

Davis said she remembers riding horses and herding sheep here. She said she’s proud of her family’s legacy. Her grandfather helped manage the monument. And park officials said they’ve had a friendly relationship with the family.

In the mid-1990s the National Park Service, with the help of a nonprofit partner, bought two acres of land about 15 miles from Wupatki for Davis and her family. They bought a mobile home and lived there for 15 years. But when their daughter became ill, Davis said they sold the land to pay medical bills.

Wupatki National Monument
Peshlakai Etsidi made the 400-mile "long walk" to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. When he returned in the 1860s he settled at what is today Wupatki National Monument.

Kayci Cook Collins, superintendent of Flagstaff area national monuments, said when the Davis family accepted that land they gave up any claim to Wupatki.

“Our mandate is to preserve what makes this a nationally significant place for all people, for all families,” Collins said. “So to grant a special right for one family doesn’t serve the purpose of Wupatki National Monument as part of the national park system, which protects the nation’s history for all of us.”

Wupatki is known for its ancient Pueblo ruins, some as old as the 11th century. There are 13 tribes traditionally associated with the land.

“There are many different peoples, many different individuals, many different families that claim a connection to Wupatki National Monument as do thousands and thousands of visitors that come to see what is their history as well,” Collins said.

Collins said the Peshlakais have no legal existing private property right. Wupatki was never even Navajo land.

Laurel Morales
Kayci Cook Collins is the superintendent of Flagstaff Area National Monuments.

“They were public lands at the time of the original monument’s designation in 1924,” Collins said.

The state and Navajo tribe have unsuccessfully tried to intervene. It would take an act of Congress to change anything. So Stella will likely be the last Navajo to live at Wupatki.

When she dies, Davis’ family will have six months to find a new home.