This photograph of a Christmas gathering was taken in 1935 on the grounds of the Wupatki National Monument north of Flagstaff. The family in the photograph is (from left) Sally Peshlakai, Etsidi Peshlakai (Sally’s father-in-law), Etsidi’s wife and their grandchildren. The Christmas tree in the photograph was possibly a gift from missionaries who had a school and church south of the monument.
Christmas trees, ornaments and gifts were not typically part of the Navajo’s winter culture. Their wintertime traditions revolved around storytelling, especially coyote tales and life-lesson stories. However, remote trading posts brought Christmas traditions to the Navajos when the traders gave small gifts of cloth and coffee during the holiday season.
The Peshlakais learned about Christmas traditions from their distant neighbors who worked as custodians at the Wupatki Monument. During Christmastime, they would bring the Peshlakais gifts and food.
Davy and Courtney Jones were the second custodians at Wupatki and had a close relationship with the Peshlakai family. One Christmas, they brought a gift of cigarettes for the Peshlakai’s 95-year-old grandmother. In 1941, Courtney wrote about the strange gift, saying “isn’t that a rare thing for an old lady… but that is what she wanted.”
The Peshlakais (the name means silversmith in Navajo) settled along the Little Colorado around 1825, long before there were reservations or monuments with boundaries.
In 1864, young Etsidi Peshlakai and his family were among the more than 8,000 Navajos
rounded up by U.S. troops and forced to leave their ancestral homelands in Arizona and New Mexico on what came to be called the “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico.
The relocation by the U.S. government was a disaster. Many Navajos died on the walk, a smallpox epidemic killed hundreds at the camp, there were crop failures and in the new country, the Navajos were unable to live in their traditional ways.
Etsidi and his family finally were released in 1868. They returned to live near the ruins now known as Wupatki and Wukoki.
When Wupatki was named a national monument in the 1920s, the Peshlakai family was allowed to continue to live in their historic home place until their deaths.
Etsidi died in 1939, and his son, Clyde, became the head of the Peshlakai family.
One of Clyde’s wives, Sally Peshlakai, often visited and sewed with Courtney Jones (one of the custodians at the monument) in the small rooms in the original ruins of Wupatki.
Clyde died in 1970 and in the 1990s Sally moved into a nursing home in Flagstaff.
James Peshlakai, another descendant of the Peshlakai family, is an educator, practicing medicine man and artist. He has served as resident elder of the Native American Student Services at Northern Arizona University, introducing Native American culture to university students and faculty, while guiding Native Americans in their sometimes forgotten culture. Under James’s direction, a traditional hogan has been built on NAU’s south campus for ceremonies and classes.
James’ daughter, Jamescita Peshlakai, was elected in 2012 to the Arizona Legislature representing Legislative District 7, which covers the northeast corner of the state and includes the Navajo Nation, the Hopi, the Havasupai, the Hualapai, the Kaibab-Paiute, the San Carlos Apache, the White Mountain Apache and the Zuni reservations.
— Joan Brundige-Baker. Photo courtesy Philip Johnston Collection, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University.