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America's Best Idea: Some Navajo still struggle with eviction from Wupatki National Monument

NAU Cline Library, Joseph Muench Collection, NAU.PH.2003.11.23.E2500
Entrance sign to Wupatki National Monument from US HWY 89

Flagstaff, AZ –

Today KNAU continues its series "America's Best Idea" with a visit to Wupatki National Monument, north of Flagstaff. Wupatki was established to protect dozens of ancient dwellings that rise out of the rocky landscape, intricate stone structures built by the ancestors of the Hopi and other pueblo tribes. More recently, though, Navajos lived at Wupatki. Over the past many decades Navajo people have known the area by two names: the earlier word translates roughly as "the place where Anasazi things are." The second name means "within the fence," which came into use after the land was declared a national monument in 1924. Rose Houk has the second installment in KNAU's series "America's Best Idea.

View a slideshow.

Buy James Peshlakai's CD

Visit Wupatki National Monument.

Ken Burns' "The National Parks: America's Best Idea"


RH: Along the road through Wupatki National Monument, within sight of the visitor center, sits a small stone house. Not an ancient, majestic pueblo like the ones Wupatki was set up to protect. Just a simple, square house that's easy to miss.

JP: Tr 1, 24:44- That house over there, that's where my father is buried.

RH: James Peshlakai's family has a long, complex relationship with this place. His father, Clyde Peshlakai, was one of Wupatki's early employees. His grandfather, Peshlakai Etsidi, was among the Navajos of Wupatki sent on the Long Walk by the US Army in 1864. Thousands were forced onto a dismal reservation in New Mexico called Bosque Redondo. It was 500 rough miles back to Wupatki Basin:

JP: Tr 1, 7:00-7:17 they had no shoes, they used to put pine pitch on the sole of their feet and covered it with tree bark.

RH: Along the way they found wild cattle, and carried back grinding stones and seeds.

JP: Tr 1, 9:21-9:26 across the river from the red point, see those cliffs right over there?

RH: James gestures out toward the great expanse of Wupatki grasslands, to the river valley where his ancestors rebuilt their lives around 1870:

JP: Tr 1, 9:27-10:04 right below it where this wash empties into the Little Colorado, they came back there and they planted the seeds so by the time the rest of the family came home back in August or so the corn were about a foot high right after Bosque Redondo my grandfather's people beelined straight back for Wupatki.

RH: Peshlakai Etsidi became an influential headman among his people. But by the late 1880s, Anglo settlers and ranchers had arrived in the Wupatki area. Conflicts broke out, some of them violent. Then in 1924, another presence arrived the federal government in the form of the National Park Service. For several decades after, Navajos continued to live in the national monument. James was born here in 1945.

JP: Tr 3, 6:36-6:40 I played on every mesa, every rock. 7:00-7:17 when I was maybe about three or four years old, me and my sister were herding sheep in the foothills of the Doney Crater, and we climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed, we got to the top of that crater and I saw the whole world [laughs] Tr 3, 22:54-23:11 Even as a teenager he spent many hours here. I would do my homework on the back of my horse, I would lay on my horse, my feet would be towards the head, laying with my books, did my homework herding sheep.

RH: By the 1960s the Peshlakais were among the last Navajos living in the monument. Eventually, the government decided they had to move out, except for a few elders who remained under special permit. Now only one remains.

JP: Tr 1, 23:42-24:17 I'm living in Cameron and my sheep are penned up every day I have to feed hay to my sheep and my horse.

RH: James Peshlakai doesn't try to hide his feelings about their eviction: 18:37-18:44: I am very sorry I am a very bitter man, I didn't make myself this way. The National Park Service made me this way.

RH: The National Park Service does not deny what happened to the Navajos of Wupatki. An exhibit in the newly revamped visitor center acknowledges that history. Inez Paddock has worked most of her life for the Park Service including two stints at Wupatki. James Peshlakai is her cousin. Inez grew up across the Little Colorado River from the park. But she'd often cross to visit James and other relatives.

IP: Tr 1 6:16-6:32 We thought looking from across the river from the Navajo land, they had the best place in the world. But later on I guess there was a conflict with the government. I wouldn't really say it's the National Park Service, it's the government that done that to us. So that's the way I look at it.

RH: Inez appreciates why some people still harbor hard feelings toward the government. But she thinks it may be time to move on:

IP: Tr 3, 27:02-27:27 things that happened here, it's not hard for me to talk about it because it happened a war's a war, it's there. It might be hard for the people that were really involved in it to me I was looking at it from across to here, so I guess that makes it easier.

RH: But it's still difficult for James Peshlakai. "I don't drive through here at all. I don't go through here. This ia the first time in how many years that I'm driving through here. And I miss too painful." Looking back at the stone house where his father is buried, he has a wistful thought:

JP: Tr 3, 23:16-23:45 I was just telling my wife if we ever get this land back live down this way down this wash about a mile from the river, that's where you need to camp that's my grandfather's land.

OUT: For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Rose Houk in Wupatki National Monument. Music from James Peshlakai Host Outro: That's James Peshlakai singing "Social Dance" from his new CD "Songs of the Navajo." The CD has been nominated for Best Album in the Native American Music Awards. Pehslakai's devoted the past several years of his life to sharing his people's culture, and music, with the world.