Influential Diné storyteller passes on
James Peshlakai, a cultural icon, hataałi, and one of the most influential Diné storytellers, has died. He was 71.
Peshlakai died on Feb. 4, his family announced.
“James Peshlakai, a gentle giant has breathed his last,” his daughter, Arizona State Senator Jamescita Peshlakai, wrote on her Facebook page. “My father’s spirit has left his body. He taught us our bodies are loaned to us as vessels for our souls, and we’ll go back to our creator.”
“Our father was a traditional Navajo man,” she added later.
During his last and final interview with the Navajo Times, Peshlakai (Béésh Łigaii, Diné bizaad k’ehjí) wanted to talk about his community of Cameron, Arizona, where he resided for most of his life.
“We were always in a lawsuit!” Peshlakai exclaimed as he talked about the old days in Cameron. “Man, we were just up in the court rooms all the time! We went to bed thinking about lawsuits! And that’s how we grew up, struggling for our people.”
“We had to educate our attorneys and the hearing officer about our lifestyle, our tradition, and how we use the land,” he continued. “We also involved our children, who saw us struggling and teaching non-Natives about the history of this region. And they learned about the struggle the Diné people went through since the beginning of time.”
Born in the Wupatki area in north-central Arizona on April 7, 1945, Peshlakai was exceptional from the beginning. He was also a courageous and a committed leader.
In 1995, Peshlakai, who always said he is Diné-Kiis’áanii-Chíshí, was instrumental in starting adult education in conjunction with Northern Arizona University, where he taught applied Indigenous studies for a number of years.
Among other things, Peshlakai served as chapter president and secretary-treasure for five terms, was once a member of the Navajo Bar Association, practicing law in tribal courts, and teaching at Diné College and lecturing at venues across the country.
Throughout his distinguished life, Peshlakai was given many awards, including the Marvin E. Johnson Award, an international mark of recognition for appreciation of conflict resolution.
Peshlakai was the owner and operator of the Peshlakai Cultural Foundation and the Peshlakai Trading Co. and Gallery in Tusayan, Arizona.
In May 2014, Peshlakai received an honorary diploma from Greyhills Academy High School. He dedicated the honor to his wife, Mae Walker Peshlakai, of more than 50 years.
“I feel good,” Peshlakai said at that point in time. “She’s the mother of my children and the mother of my grandchildren.”
But through thick and thin, Peshlakai always stood beside her, Mae Peshlakai always says. “We did it together.”
James Peshlakai was the son of the late Clyde and Katherine Peshlakai. He was Kinłichíi’nii and born for Tséńjíkiní. He leaves behind his wife, four adult children – son Darcy Peshlakai and daughters Jamescita Peshlakai, Stephanie Peshlakai-Carrillo, Shalta Peshlakai; 12 grand children, one great grandchild; and eight siblings.
To help with a memorial fund, his family started a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/3c9js5c) where more than $600 has been raised of a $14,000 goal.