Their roots run deep

2011-04-05T08:15:00Z 2011-04-05T08:28:56Z Their roots run deepBETSEY BRUNER Arts & Culture Editor Arizona Daily Sun
April 05, 2011 8:15 am  • 

On a nice day last fall, a young Navajo, Anthony (Tony) Davis, walked across his ancestral land in Wupatki National Monument, with his sights set on a two-room stone house on a bluff about a quarter mile from the modern visitor center.

Although cautioned by his mother Helen and others to stay clear of the house, he was on a quest to document the history of his family, the descendants of Peshlakai Etsidi, an influential headman among his people and Davis' great-great-grandfather.

The house holds the body of his great-grandfather, Clyde Peshlakai, who served as acting caretaker of the monument in the 1930s and '40s.

After his death in 1970, his remains were left inside the stone home, which should not be visited by the living, according to Navajo burial traditions.

However, for Davis, 32, the visit was vital to his efforts to document his family's land claims in the area.

"I see it like strength," said Davis, who shot video and photos. "To me, he exists to me -- my great-grandfather exists to me. I went up there to pray: 'I got this quest, we need your help.' My grandmother Stella actually did a prayer out there, too. I stood outside; we can't go inside the house."

Davis is one of a new generation of Navajo who are well-educated and finding more ways to pursue issues that concern their people.

MANY CLAIMS ON LAND

Claims to land rights in the Wupatki area, located 26 miles north of Flagstaff and accessed via Highway 89, go back in oral history to before the Long Walk of 1864, Davis said.

On that infamous journey, Peshlakai Etsidi was just a boy and one of thousands of Navajo who were forcibly sent by the U.S. Army to a grim reservation in New Mexico called Bosque Redondo.

The beauty of the red rocks and the draw of a land fertile enough to grow the three "sisters" -- maize, climbing beans and squash -- drew Peshlakai Etsidi and his family back to Wupatki after they were released from the reservation in New Mexico.

This is also the land of ancient Wupatki, an epic story of the Southwest spanning at least 2,000 years to the present, and distinguished by farming subsistence, pottery technology, villages and pueblos.

Many people through the years have put claims on the land, including cattle ranchers who coveted the rich grazing lands from the 1880s to the present.

Archaeologists also had great interest in the area, which was redolent with remnants of ancestral pueblo people, or Anasazi, including their crumbling buildings.

In order to preserve and protect these cultural treasures, Wupatki National Monument was established Dec. 9, 1924, by President Calvin Coolidge.

All too often, it was Navajo settlers, with their hogans and sheep corrals, who were forced off by the march of Western civilization from homes in the Wupatki Basin to areas across the Little Colorado, like Black Falls.

PEOPLE NOT FORGOTTEN

Davis is working with Forgotten People, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping communities in the western Navajo area with sanitation, low-cost housing, sustainable agriculture, safe water, solar energy, forced relocation and land disputes.

He is also working with Dr. Lee Greer, of La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., who is studying ancient Anasazi DNA and its possible relationship to the Navajo.

Jamescita Peshlakai, whose grandmother is Katherine Peshlakai, the last wife of Clyde, remembers driving past the stone house when she was young.

"We all had to avert our eyes," she said. "Tony has to take those pictures for the family, to help with the land claim."

Her father, James Peshlakai, a traditional teacher, artist and medicine man, was born and raised in Wupatki.

As part of the extended Pesklakai family, Jamescita had just visited the sheep ranch of Stella Peshlakai Smith, 85, whose father was Clyde Peshlakai.

The elder is the last private individual to have a special use permit in the monument for residency and livestock grazing on her property, which is located about 8 miles from the Little Colorado River.

Although she calls her "Aunt Stella," Jamescita had never met her before.

"Stella -- just her name is from someone far away, a long time ago," she said.

After Stella's death, her property and rights will revert back to the National Parks Service, because, according to a signed 1991 agreement, the permit cannot be transferred to a living heir or relative.

Davis said he and his family want to change Stella's temporary permit to a more permanent authorization.

"But, it's a federal issue," he added. "Our congressman is our key person to deal with authorizing that."

'WANT US TO VANISH'

Helen Davis, Stella's daughter and Tony's mother, made the trip with them, joining Jamescita at the ranch.

"So, Helen and I are sisters in a way," said Jamescita, as they share the same grandfather, but are from different clans through their mothers -- Towering House (Helen) and Tangle People (Jamescita).

Although she and her husband, Anthony Sr., live in Doney Park, Helen said she would like to move back to Wupatki, where she was raised, even though she relinquished that right in 1994, according to Park Service documents.

"I still want to move back," she said. "We want to have our animals. I still have horses. We had to fight to stay on the land, because my grandfather said, 'Let my children stay.' Clyde Peshlakai is our grandfather, and our grandchildren should be living over here."

Today, Stella's sheep farm is nestled in a little canyon with cottonwoods and willows, near Wukoki ruins just south of the visitor center.

Tony Davis said his grandmother was born in Gray Mountain during the pinon season in November, but, after her mother died, was raised from 2 years on in Wupatki by her grandfather, Peshlakai Etsidi.

She had to move in the mid-1970s, he said, after the family house up on higher land burned down. The Park Service requested she move into a nearby canyon.

"The water gets so deep that it's not safe in the canyon," Helen Davis said. "We want to move back up higher. They said we could get our water and electricity, and yet -- nothing. They want us to vanish from here."

While the elder was in Flagstaff having eye surgery last year, somehow her corrals and pens were opened, releasing all her sheep and goats.

For security, a new locked gate leading to Stella's land was installed last fall and keys have been issued to Stella and her family.

Davis and his siblings spent their early years at their grandmother's place at Wupatki.

It was a charmed childhood.

"We were herding sheep, and my brother and I when we were young, we'd go exploring through the canyon," he said. "My mother would say, 'Don't go too far!' or don't go in some places."

After leaving his job as a civil engineer in Phoenix to help his family here, he is still exploring Wupatki.

"I've gone out there on foot," he said. "There are still a lot of empty homesteads still existing. They have hogans, corrals and areas where they farmed before."

VIVID MEMORY OF HOME

James Peshlakai had two daughters and two sons in addition to Jamescita.

One of eight children of Clyde and Katherine Peshlakai, today he lives with his wife, Mae, in a Navajo Housing Authority home in Cameron.

"We are members of the wandering people, descendants of the Conquistadors [Spanish explorers of 15th and 16th centuries]," James Peshlakai said. "My mother told me what Peshlakai Etsidi was telling her about those ships with those heads on the noses of the boats. It's just now I'm connecting those ships with my grandfather."

His mother, Katherine, is 91 and is living in Flagstaff, leaving her sheep ranch across the Little Colorado in the care of her daughter, Eleanor.

"She's my dad's oldest sister," Jamescita said. "The burden of the whole Red House clan is on her shoulders ... We're still here, and we're still fighting."

At a birthday party March 19, Jamescita's sister Shalta recalled having to move from their original home near the visitor center in the monument, to across the river to Black Falls, which happened in about 1978.

"One day we were just packed up," said Shalta Peshlakai Gerber, who was 2 when forced to relocate. "We drove across the river and over the hill to the home, and we never went back."

She said people think the only people who ever inhabited the Wupatki area are long dead and left their ruins there.

"As a little kid, I was really upset about it," she recalled. "I said, 'My family is from there!' They want to erase the people who lived there not too long ago."

Her mother, Mae Peshlakai, said her children still have a bond with the land of Wupatki.

"These kids still have the connection through their grandmother," she said. "They still love their land. You can live away from your homeland until you die, but it's still vivid for you."

Betsey Bruner can be reached at bbruner@azdailysun.com or 556-2255.

IF YOU GO...

WHAT: Gathering for Mother Earth 2011

Sunrise run, breakfast, arts and crafts, food booths, dances, special tributes to Navajo sheep, goats and sheep dogs.

WHEN: Saturday, May 7

WHERE: Dzil Libei School, Cameron

INFO: (928) 206-2693

IF YOU GO...

WHAT: Wupatki National Monument

Scenic drive, trails, and pueblos are open from sunrise to sunset. The Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

WHERE: 26 miles north of Flagstaff via Highway 89.

ADMISSION: $5 per person, free for children 16 years and under

INFO: (928) 679-2365.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. Born in Flagstaff
    Report Abuse
    Born in Flagstaff - April 05, 2011 1:18 pm
    The majority of the ancestral peoples in Wupatki were Sinaguan (not Anasazi), to whom the Hopi (not Navajo) claim ties.
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