Clyde Peshlakai’s work featured in Colloquia

Clyde Peshlakai, medicine man, herbalist, ethnobotanist and historian, left an important legacy to the Western Navajo region, the Navajo Tribe—and a small National Monument known as Wupatki. Although Peshlakai became internationally known for his work on the Navajo Land Claim case, one Flagstaff woman is far more interested in the man’s ethnobotanic work.

Phyllis Hogan, a practicing ethnobotonist, recently acknowledged the work of Clyde Peshlakai as well as several non-Indian scientists who helped to preserve botanical information of the Wupatki area. The ongoing colloquia program presented jointly by the Museum of Northern Arizona and Northern Arizona University aired Hogan’s presentation, which was presented live to an audience the previous evening, on November 10th on Channel 4.

Ethnobotony is the study of the relationship between the plants and the people who live with or near them. Uses of the plants, whether it is ceremonial, symbolic, ritually, or for food, are studies to better understand this relationship. Not all ethnobotanists are practicing—in other words, actively use the plants they study for their more esoteric functions. Hogan is a practicing herbalist, and the products of over 200 plants are available at her business, Winter Sun, located in Flagstaff’s historic downtown area.

Hogan, who is the director of the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association, has been actively involved in documenting the plant life of the area—and has now helped to continue the history of one Navajo family.

Upon her arrival to Flagstaff, Hogan was honored to meet and get to know the James Peshlakai family, and as time passed, she was able to meet with and actually work with James’s mother and sister. Hogan shared the following history of this family in her colloquia presentation.

The Peshlakai family has had a presence in the cold, high desert area known as Wupatki National Monument long before non-Indian occupation. Wupatki is the largest ruin in the area—at one time the little village sported three stories and provided homes to a population of 100. It is situated near the Little Colorado River, and was part of the trade route from Mexico into the Southwest.

Peshlakai Etsidy, who was born in 1950, was the first Peshlakai introduced in Hogan’s presentation. Etsidy was known to be a profound speaker and medicine man. He was also one of the first silversmiths in the area. People traveled from all across Western Navajo to consult with him for his knowledge of plants and for his assistance as a medicine man. He was also politically active; as the railroad and non-Indian ranchers entered the area, Etsidy traveled with three other Nataani and a Methodist preacher to Washington D.C. in 1902 to enlist President Roosevelt’s aid in protecting Navajo ancestral rights to their homeland.

Unfortunately, his efforts were fruitless, and 65 members of the Peshlakai clan were forced to relocate. Today, the Peshlakai presence within the monument continues, though greatly diminished. Catherine Peshlakai continues her family’s tradition of exceptional weaving.

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