“I didn’t really study to be a teacher,” James Peshlakai remembers. “I studied police science.” Nonetheless, Peshlakai’s students have successfully nominated him for the honor of being one of the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, 2000.
“Because of your ability and dedication, you have made a significant impact and difference in the lives of your students,” reads the letter Peshlakai received, informing him of the prestigious honor.
“I really didn’t expect anything like this,” Peshlakai admitted “I guess I influences my students. It was a surprise, because my students have educated me more about human behavior than I’ve ever taught them.”
After a stint with the Navajo Police in Tuba City, Peshlakai went on to work as a caseworker for State Welfare. “I learned a lot of things there. I learned of the hard things in life.” Afterwards, the silversmith, performer and medicine man went on to teach at Inscription House.
The experiences he gained during this period of his life led Peshlakai and his wife Mae to develop food cooperatives and arts and crafts cooperatives. “For a long time I had my business. I traveled around with the Dine bi Arts and Crafts Cooperative, selling Native American products all the way up and down the east and west coast.”
Unfortunately, a health problem took Peshlakai off the road and back home to Navajo. One day, while he was sitting at home, a friend had a flat tire out on the road. “He walked up to my house, and asked me to come teach at the Tuba City Public School. My life began again.”
His knowledge of Navajo history and culture led to a position at Diné College. “Students really wanted to know about Navajo culture and life,” Peshlakai said. “I noticed, in living in the Western Agency, that there were a lot of problems with alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and depression, and I found that a lot of people would blame the parents for these problems.” He does not ascribe to this theory.
“I believe the problem began with the Bennett Freeze, the Joint Use Area. People were told that there would be no new development until the Navajo and Hopi agree on this. This issue affected more than just the living conditions of the people living under it. It affected their social and economic life as well. I’ve seen first hand what my people have gone through.”
Peshlakai describes himself as a hard taskmaster. “I expected a lot of my students—I had very high expectations of them.” But teaching grade and high school is much different from college level courses. And there were students he wasn’t able to help. “I will tell students that college is about thinking and theory, having opinions and being able to defend those opinions. High school, grade school, that is all about memorization.”
Unfortunately, some Native American students were unable to make that transition.
“Somewhere during the education process these kids were left behind. They had high hopes, but their English expression and writing was not at a college level.”
He admits that there have been people out there who he’s upset, because of his high expectations. “I told them straight up, I want them to be able to go out there and compete in the academic world,” Peshlakai explained.
With a laugh, Peshlakai admitted that his students set up high standards for him as a teacher. “They let me know that I needed to practice what I preach,” he laughed.
“I want to thank my students and the Holy People for giving me the opportunities I’ve had,” Peshlakai said. “I am glad that I live in a time when I was able to sit among great people such as the first Navajo on the state Senate, Arthur Hubbard, and the Code Talkers. I have sat with Fred Begay, the first Navajo Physicist of Los Alamos. I have been hugged by a great woman, Dr. Annie Wauneka, who called me her son. I’ve sat with great leaders such as Peter MacDonald, and sat and watched the moon rise with Dr. Frank Dukepoo, the great Hopi scientist.
“I am thankful to have sat with people like these, great people. I can’t ask to have lived in a better time.”
He is also grateful to the people of Arizona Highways magazine and the author Tony Hillerman. “But most of all, I am thankful to the students and children who wanted to learn the song and dance of the Navajo people, and to my wife and children who’ve stood by my side with their encouragement.”
In recognition of the accomplishments of James Peshlakai, a medicine man in a long line of medicine men and a teacher of Navajo history and culture, his family is establishing the Peshlakai Foundation, which seeks to preserve Navajo culture. “The Foundation will fund traditional and medicine people who go out into schools and other forums to teach traditional ways. Men and women who have their traditional knowledge first hand from their grandfathers and grandmothers, not from some book written by an anthropologist.”
When asked what advice he would offer to young Native Americans, his answer seems almost simple. “If there is an opportunity in life, take it!” James Peshlakai has lived many lives, many occupations in his notable life, and he has gotten where he is today by living on that principle. He is a man who has recognized opportunity, and who has taken a chance to see it to fruition.
This has not only affected his own life, but those of his students who have honored him with his place in the pages of Who’s Who Among American Teachers. Not such a bad accomplishment, James.