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Controversy stirs questions over naming of peak

SIPAULOVI, Ariz. - Former Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku has been watching the emotional political drama with great interest from high atop the tribe's northern Arizona mesas.

And one thing really strikes Secakuku, a politician turned anthropologist, about the continuing fallout of changing the name of Phoenix's Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak, in honor of tribal member and Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, who was killed in Iraq on March 23.

"Maybe they should give it a second thought," Secakuku said. "Don't get me wrong. I agree with the name change and we as Hopis are honored by it. But it's created all this controversy and because of that, maybe it ought to be called something else. We as Hopis don't condone animosity."

But, in Arizona's state capitol, the firestorm continued over the way the peak name change was handled.

The State Board of Geographic Names voted 5-1 last week to change the name of the popular hiking area, whose brown escarpment towers 1,500 feet above the desert floor, to Piestewa Peak.

But Board Chairman Tim Norton, a Phoenix police officer, did not attend the meeting because of fallout from his comments shortly after the peak name change was proposed that he wouldn't consider it for five years, in keeping with customary state and federal guidelines. Napolitano has called for Norton's resignation.

During last week's frenzy over the name change, it came to light that Napolitano's chief of staff, Mario Diaz, had called one of Norton's supervisors at the Phoenix police department to try to put pressure on Norton to change the peak name.

In response, Republican leaders of the Arizona state Legislature like Senate President Ken Bennett said they plan to recall some of the Democrat Napolitano's nominees to state boards and commissions that haven't been confirmed yet for further examination because of the way the governor has handled the Peak name situation.

In a prepared statement, Napolitano said, "I regret that my staff member dealt with (Norton) with a very heavy hand. It's not a way to deal with people that I sanction. It is something that will not happen again."

Napolitano also said that she has no regrets about petitioning the board to change the normal operating procedures and change the long-contentious Squaw Peak name rapidly.

In fact, the new signs which provide directions to the peak are already being prepared and the focus is shifting now to changing the name of Squaw Peak Freeway, which loops central Phoenix. Research is also being conducted on a number of other Arizona land forms which bear the offensive name.

"Virtually every Native American and most women I have spoken with find that name offensive. For once, we acted quickly to commemorate a significant happening in our state," Napolitano said.

Napolitano said she wants to have a memorial to all of the fallen Arizona soldiers from the war in Iraq but first wants to talk with families and other state representatives and senators. Piestewa, who is believed to be the first Native American military woman to die in foreign combat, was the only Native American casualty in the conflict from Arizona.

Meanwhile, details began to slowly emerge concerning Piestewa's death in Iraq. It took some of the heat off Napolitano, whom critics claimed made a hasty, politically motivated decision concerning a soldier who might have done little more than make a wrong turn.

In a speech to the Navajo National Council in Window Rock, U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., said he had attended intelligence briefings at the Defense Department and that all reports indicated that Piestewa died a hero.

Renzi said that the Army's 507th Maintenance Company was attacked on its right flank on March 23 while motoring through southern Iraq.

"Lori was on the right flank, and with courage she fought to the death. As people fled, she charged the enemy," Renzi said. Contacted later, Renzi said he couldn't go into further detail at the request of Piestewa's family.

That scenario comes as no surprise to Secackuku, who says that one of the tribe's most popular traditional stories is of a Joan of Arc figure who took up the sword to protect her aging father from invaders. Tribal religious leaders canonized her with a kachina.

And, while some of those objecting to the name change have pointed out that Piestewa Peak lies within the traditional area of the Pima culture and is 250 miles from the Hopi reservation, Secackuku says symbolism is the important point and getting rid of a racist term.

"Besides that, we once made our living among the Pimas and Tohono O'odham people in that area on our migration northward between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago," Secakuku said.

Secakuku said he just wishes all the controversy would die down.

"In our belief, within four days of death, the body is transformed into a spiritual being on its journey to the spirit world. The best thing for right now is just to forget about Lori so she can complete her journey. All this is putting a stumbling block on that journey."