Federal Goverment Jeopardizes Navajo Family's Ties To Its Home

May 16, 2014
Originally published on May 17, 2014 7:46 am

At 89 years old, Stella Peshlakai Smith shuffles around her Arizona yard in white tennis shoes and a long traditional Navajo skirt. She points to her ceremonial home, called a hogan. "My father made this one [almost 100 years ago]," Smith says. Her modern house sits next door.

Over the past few centuries, families settled on what is now the Wupatki National Monument in Flagstaff, Ariz. The National Park Service says Smith is the only person authorized to live on that land. She was born a year before the land became a national monument and the Park Service has given her special permission to stay.

Her descendants want the right to live there, too, but the Park Service has told them they will have to leave when Smith dies.

Five generations have buried their umbilical cords here, a Navajo tradition that ties them to the land. After the U.S. Army forced thousands of Navajos to walk 400 miles to Fort Sumner in the 1860s, the Peshlakai family settled here.

Smith's daughter, Helen Peshlakai Davis, translates as her mother speaks in the Navajo language, Diné. Smith says she wants to stay put until her day comes and she'd like to see her grandkids and great-grandkids continue to live there, too. It doesn't look like that will happen.

In the mid-'90s, with the help of a nonprofit, the Park Service bought 2 acres of land about 15 miles from Wupatki for Peshlakai Davis, her husband and their two kids. They have since sold the land and moved back to the monument with Smith.

"It's not fair," Peshlakai Davis says. "The Park Service is telling us we cannot live here because this is our home. This is why we're fighting for it."

Kayci Cook Collins, the superintendent of national monuments in the Flagstaff area, is thinking about more than just the Smith family.

"Our mandate is to preserve what makes this a nationally significant place for all people, for all families," Collins says. "To grant a special right for one family doesn't serve the purpose of Wupatki National Monument as part of the national park system."

Collins says 13 tribes are traditionally associated with Wupatki.

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

Collins says when the Davis family accepted the land buyout, it gave up any claim to Wupatki. The Peshlakais have no legal existing private property right, she says. But for Stella and her family it's shighan, the Navajo word for home.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the 1800s, the Navajo herded sheep across vast areas of the Southwest. Over time, a few families settled on what is now a national monument in northern Arizona. The National Park Service says people can't live on that land, with the exception of one elderly Navajo woman. But now her descendants also want the right to live there.

From member station KJZZ, Laura Morales reports from Flagstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)

LAURA MORALES, BYLINE: At Wupatki National Monument, the contrasts are great. Harsh winds blow but ancient sandstone ruins remain intact. Sage shrubs take root in the black lava rock. 89-year-old Stella Peshlakai Smith shuffles around her yard in white tennis shoes and a long traditional Navajo skirt. Using her limited English, she points to a stone hogan, a ceremonial home.

STELLA PESHLAKAI SMITH: My father made this one.

MORALES: ...almost a hundred years ago. Stella's modern house sits next door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MORALES: 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.

SMITH: (Foreign language spoken)

HELEN PESHLAKAI DAVIS: She wants to live out through her life here until her day comes. Her grandkids, she would like to see them continue living here, the grandchildren and the great grandchildren.

MORALES: Stella's daughter, Helen Peshlakai Davis, translates for her mother who speaks mostly Dine, the Navajo language. Helen, her husband and two kids live with Stella on Wupatki.

In the mid-'90s, the National Park Service with the help of a nonprofit bought two acres of land about 15 miles from Wupatki for Helen and her family. They have since sold the land and moved back to the monument. But the Park Service has told them they will have to leave when Stella dies.

DAVIS: You know, it's not fair. 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.

KAYCI COOK COLLINS: Our mandate is to preserve what makes this a nationally significant place for all people, for all families.

MORALES: Kayci Cook Collins is the superintendent of Flagstaff area national monuments.

COLLINS: And so, to preserve it 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.

MORALES: Collins says 13 tribes are traditionally associated with Wupatki.

COLLINS: 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.

MORALES: Collins says when the Davis family accepted that land buy out they gave up any claim to Wupatki. She says the Peshlakais have no legal existing private property right. Wupatki was never even Navajo land. But for Stella and her family it's...

SMITH: Shighan(ph).

MORALES: Shighan, the Navajo word for home.

The state and the Navajo tribe have unsuccessfully tried to intervene. Now it would take an act of Congress to change anything.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Morales in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.