The family of an elderly Navajo woman is speaking out now in the hope that they will be allowed to continue to live on their ancestral land in Northern Arizona when she dies.
Stella Peshlakai Smith is tied to the land of Wupatki National Monument by Navajo belief – her umbilical cord is buried there. And, by law, the 89-year-old has rights to live on the land because she was born there one month before the area was declared a national monument in 1924.
Now the National Parks Service says that when she dies, so will her family’s rights to stay on their ancestral land.
“We just don’t have the authority to allow people to live on what has always been public lands,” said Kayci Cook, superintendent of the Flagstaff Area National Monuments. The lands have never been legally declared tribal or private, according to Cook. “If anyone is allowed to claim to live on public lands, how are they public lands anymore?”
According to a letter of authorization the family is contesting, after Stella dies her family would have six months to vacate the property and an additional six months to collect any personal items that they have.
“There’s no instrument that we have control over that would allow any additional family members to live there after she goes,” Cook said.
It’s now Congress, not the National Park Service, that has the power to allow the Peshlakai family to remain residing at Wupatki.
A new version of a resolution in support of the Peshlakais and other Navajo families residing at Wupatki is being considered in the Arizona state legislature. It was introduced by a relative, and Democratic state representative, Jamescita Peshlakai.
The Peshlakai family has also found a supporter in Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.). According to her chief of staff Carmen Gallus, there are several viable options, including legislation, for how the Peshlakai family would be able to stay legally residing on their land.
“We’re trying to figure out the best path forward and will continue to keep stakeholders engaged,” said Gallus.
“It’s not good for me to move anywhere else because this is my ancestral land and I’m safe here,” Helen Peshlakai Davis, the daughter of Stella, said in the video. “This is where we do our traditional ways of life.”
Relocation carries a painful history for the Navajo. In 1864, hundreds of Navajo were forced to move from their homes in Northern Arizona by the U.S. Army, in what is known as the “Long Walk,” into New Mexico. It has been compared to the “Trail of Tears” — the forced march of thousands of Native Americans living in the Southeastern part of the U.S. to present-day Oklahoma.
Stella’s family were among those who eventually returned to live at Wupatki National Monument. Her daughter Helen says more Navajo would move back to Wupatki to live if given the chance to do so.
“Even though our elders have gone away, I still want to see the fulfillment of the return of the Navajo. The return of the people to this land,” Stella said in the video.
Cook said the park service has been working with Stella for years and will continue to do so.
“She is an amazing person and she appears to be in great health. I hope that she’s around for a very long time.”