Navajo State Senator's Act of Compassion in an Arid Land

Lack of water is a huge issue for state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai’s district, one of many she must juggle for the people she represents. It's why she and her partner don't hesitate to help two thirsty horses.

Jamescita Peshlakai is the first and only Navajo woman state senator in Arizona. Her district, encompassing the Navajo Nation, is the largest state legislative district in the United States, roughly the size of West Virginia. A lack of safe drinking water has long been one of the most pressing problems on the reservation. It is estimated that 40 percent or more of reservation households are without running water. Many remote Navajos are forced to drive as much as 50 miles to get clean water. An ongoing drought and six months of the pandemic are compounding the problem as home-bound residents now rely on others to bring water to them. 

Sen. Peshlakai shares a remote double-wide trailer home with her partner Glenn Peaches. They do not have running water, but a planned pipeline could bring relief later this year. Even though rows of transmission towers march across the arid landscape within sight of their front door, they do not have electricity. Or a septic system. While they wait for water, Jamescita and Glenn take showers at her mother Mae’s house, a mile away. Lately, they’ve been staying with her mother all the time.


Jamescita’s home sits by itself on a dry, rolling landscape. Rocky outcroppings and some houses are scattered a few hundred yards away. “That’s just the way Navajos are,” Glenn says. “They want to be distant.” After stopping by to check on their home one recent afternoon, Glenn steers his silver pickup down a dusty red road toward the highway. Barely visible beneath one of the transmission towers, he spots two feral horses, seeking the only bit of shade in sight. “They don’t look too good,” he says and continues on the main road and back to Mae’s place.

Glenn tells Jamescita about the horses and they decide to help, strapping a 50-gallon plastic drum into the bed of the truck and filling it with water from Mae’s faucet. Twenty minutes later, they are inching toward the transmission tower as the dehydrated animals struggle to stand. Glenn fills a large metal pail with water from the drum and they carry it to a spot near the tower as the horses limp away. Bending to flick a hand in the water, Jamescita tries to coax them back. They look, but keep their distance. “I think the red one is blind,” says Glenn. 

Walking in a wide half circle, Glenn eventually puts the wild horses between himself and the waiting pail of water. Jamescita backs away as the animals warily approach. Once they are close enough to realize what it is, and confident Jamescita and Glenn won’t get any closer, the animals drink side by side, not stopping until the pail is empty. The process is repeated two more times before their thirst has been satisfied. They then turn and slowly saunter down the road.

The ongoing drought and six months of COVID-19 have hurt an area already struggling with scarce resources. A year ago, not far from here, a herd of desperate and dehydrated wild horses in search of a watering hole found themselves mired in a field of mud. At least 200 of them died. Helpless to do anything about it, Sen. Peshlakai remembers that day all too well.

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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