WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. (AP) — Before an expanse of grassland and pueblo ruins in northern Arizona was declared a national monument, it was home to hundreds of Navajos whose ancestors returned to settle the area after a forced march to an eastern New Mexico internment camp.
Slowly, the Navajo families left Wupatki National Monument too, either voluntarily or under pressure by the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate private use of the public land it managed. Only one Navajo woman remains.
When 89-year-old Stella Peshlakai Smith dies, her residency permit dies with her, ending forever the Navajo presence at Wupatki.
The Peshlakais have vowed to fight for the land surrounded by the Little Colorado River valley, snow-capped mountains and towering mesas, where their sheep once grazed freely. Support for the family is mounting among state and tribal officials, but it's up to Congress to decide whether they can stay.
"This family has had a homestead there for generations and generations, years, and we want that to be made right," Navajo Nation lawmaker Walter Phelps said.
Smith estimates that dozens of extended members of her family would move back if given the chance.
An exhibit at the Wupatki visitors center highlights the struggle between the Peshlakais and the Park Service, and hints at the broader story of American Indian ancestral lands across the country that have become public property.
One 1970 letter on display is from the Park Service to a former U.S. senator from Arizona. It says: "At no time have the Navajos who grazed within the monument had any title in the land. ... In the absence of appropriate legislation, these lands could not be surrendered to the Peshlakai family. We believe such legislation would not be in the public interest."
It's the same position that monument Superintendent Kayci Cook Collins takes today. She said tribal members connected to Wupatki are able to conduct ceremonies there, and the Peshlakai family can visit Smith's homestead. But reserving property for the Peshlakais could invite other tribes, whose ancestors built pueblos and traded goods at Wupatki, to lay claim to the land.