Catching up with Arizona Rep. Mae Peshlakai

State Representative Mae Peshlakai speaks with the media outside the Arizona State Capitol building on the opening day of the 56th Legislature in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo/ Gage Skidmore)

State Representative Mae Peshlakai speaks with the media outside the Arizona State Capitol building on the opening day of the 56th Legislature in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo/ Gage Skidmore)

Arizona State Rep. Mae Peshlakai, a Cameron Democrat, will be focused on education, health care, infrastructure and veterans issues in the next session of the legislature in January.

Peshlakai represents the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and six other tribes in Legislative District 7. She serves on the military and public safety committees. She is also chairwoman of the Indigenous People’s Caucus.

She said more funding is needed for health care and education. She said the Navajo Nation lost more members than any other tribes during the COVID pandemic. She is also concerned about infrastructure, especially roads, as the work often goes out to bid and some of the companies use outdated materials.

“I am here because I care. I know what it’s like growing up on the Navajo Reservation,” she said.

Peshlakai said some non-native health care workers and educators are not sensitive to the Navajo culture.

“They need to know how the Navajo Nation works. There are some things we can’t do because of Navajo culture,” she said.

Peshlakai wants the Navajo Nation, considered a sovereign country, to handle the rights to water and minerals, but she does not know if that can be done according to treaty rights.

Peshlakai has been active in Cameron Chapter House politics for almost 30 years, much with her late husband, influential artist and storyteller James Peshlakai. Their two daughters are both veterans. Former Arizona State Senator Jamescita Peshlakai now works for the Interior Department and Stephanie Peshlakai works for the Bureau of Land Management. Peshlakai’s grandchildren work for Tuba City School District, and Peshlakai said she considers education a priority.

As a Democrat, Peshlakai is in the minority, but hopes to work with “some kind-hearted Republicans” to get legislation passed.

As a traditional Navajo, Peshlakai believes in the Beauty Way, which means that Navajos are the protectors of all living things including people, trees and animals.

“We have to all live in harmony with all living things,” she said.

One of the ways to help people on Navajo is by having homeless shelters, Peshlakai said. Currently, many Navajos travel to bordertowns for homeless shelters because of the lack of homeless shelters on the reservation. She said nursing homes are also needed on Navajo and most of Arizona’s 22 tribal reservations.

“Every tribe has a different agreement with the state and federal government,” she said.

Peshlakai said legislative staff can help her see what needs can be met through legislation. Peshlakai started campaigning with James in the 1970s for Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards and have campaigned for county, state and federal candidates since, including for their daughter.

Peshlakai has been contacted by the Hualapai about veterans issues and hopes to hear from other tribes in the district.

Peshlakai was glad to hear that former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez is running for Congress.

“You have to put your personal feelings aside and do what’s best for the people,” she said. “I am glad that an Indigenous person who understands what we face is running. He’s knowledgeable on the federal, state and tribal level. We need to push him through.”

Peshlakai, a boarding school survivor, took up silversmithing after marrying James, an accomplished silversmith and goldsmith, and to this day, makes jewelry as well as weaves. In the early 1970s, James and Peshlakai opened a fine arts studio in Flagstaff and traveled the country, setting up art and cultural demonstrations in nearly all 50 states.

“Some famous people bought our jewelry, such as then-President Gerald Ford, the Beach Boys, John Denver and many others. Today I still own and manage my own small business and know how to work with people, no matter their political party or differences in life ways. Anyone can be a friend in work or life in general,” she said.

Peshlaki can be reached at mpeshlakai@azleg.gov.

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