It was two years ago in March that a U.S. military convoy that included the
507th Army Maintenance Co. - a support unit of clerks, repairmen and cooks
- became lost and trapped in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, a city teeming
The convoy made it through the city once, reaching safety beyond a canal.
But commanding officers quickly realized they needed to retrace their route
back through the heart of the city. And they knew Iraqi troops would be
armed and ready for their return.
Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian, was behind the wheel of a Humvee.
"Lori had this look on her face that was like, 'Something is about to
happen, but we're going to be OK,'" Pvt. Dale Nace told Rolling Stone
magazine. "It made me feel at ease with myself. She gave me this calmness.
If it wasn't for her, I probably would have freaked out."
Others in the convoy described Lori as being "calm," "intent" and "in
Lori zig-zagged the Humvee through the streets of Nasiriyah in a hail of
gunfire until the vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and
crashed. Lori died of her wounds, a prisoner in an Iraqi hospital. She was
the first Native woman to be killed in combat.
WAR AND THE HOPI WAY
The Hopi homeland in northeastern Arizona is a remote, semi-arid yet
wonderful place, with tall sandstone mesas, valleys and buttes under a
huge, oceanic sky that seems to stretch from one end of the world to the
other. In the distance stand the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks, from
which Katsina spirit messengers descend on our villages, bringing moisture,
guidance and hope for the future.
The Hopi are a very traditional and cultural people. The high desert has
been our home since time immemorial. Many of us live as did our ancestors,
tending to fields of corn, melon and squash and participating in ceremonies
and practicing a spiritual way of life that dates back thousands of years.
We refer to this life-guideline as the Hopi Way.
The Hopi clan system remains strong. Our extended families of parents and
grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers, cousins and godparents love and
depend on each other very, very much. It is the Hopi tradition to help
It is also the Hopi Way to live in harmony with nature, with all things
living and non-living. We are a non-violent people. We do not believe in
doing harm to anyone or anything. In our long history we have taken up arms
only against those who raided our villages and - in time of war -
threatened our country and our freedom.
It is difficult for Hopi people to fight in wars, to reconcile our
spiritual beliefs with the need to take human life. Our elders say true
Hopi warriors - such as the Hopi code talkers - serve not to kill, but to
help others end the bloodshed.
A WORLD IN TURMOIL
Hopi people see our homeland as the center of the universe, a calm and
peaceful refuge surrounded by a world swirling with conflict. War. Hate.
Greed. Corruption. Racism. Ignorance. Divisiveness. This swirl of modern
life is closing in around us, drawing closer year after year.
The old ways are not enough anymore. It is not enough for our young people
to farm and ranch and raise cattle. We are a poor nation. We have no jobs.
There is little economic development. Our young men and women are leaving
to seek opportunity elsewhere. Some are taking jobs off the reservation.
Some enroll in college. Others enlist in the military. For many, the
military is the only option.
Lori was at birth given the name Kocha-Hon-Mana, "White Bear Girl." She was
born in the village of Moencopi. She spent her short adult life in Tuba
City. She was 23 years old when she died in Iraq. She was the single mother
of two young children: Carla and Brandon.
Like so many Native people, Lori saw the military as an opportunity to take
care of her family. The Piestewas have a long history of military service.
Her mother, Percy, told Rolling Stone: "Lori wanted to fend for her
children. She was going to build us a house and take care of us. I think
she weighed the options that she had. We're not rich enough to send her to
college. When you have obstacles in your way, you take what life offers."
Lori was strong in character. She played a championship Little League
baseball game with a broken nose and two black eyes. Her friends say she
looked like a little panda bear. She broke her foot in basic training and
refused to tell her superior officers.
Lori had an injured shoulder that could have prevented her from deployment
to Iraq. But she told her superiors it had healed. Leaving Ft. Bliss, she
smiled and told a television news reporter, "I'm ready to go."
When Lori died, some in the military, the media and a few politicians were
quick to brand her a hero. She was, after all, the first Native woman to
die in combat. "She died with a gun in her hands," they said, "firing at
the enemy in the face of danger."
That was not true, of course.
Lori died of her wounds in an Iraqi hospital. She died without hurting
anyone. She died following orders. She died in control, helping others. She
died a warrior, in the Hopi Way.
All Indian country is proud of Lori. The outpouring of love and respect is
Of course, it is not the Hopi Way to draw attention to ourselves. We don't
build statutes to our fallen warriors.
But it is good that the state renamed Squaw Peak in Lori's honor. A plaque
bearing her name is located outside a barracks at White Sands Missile Range
in New Mexico. There are scholarships for her children and other Indian
boys and girls.
Lori is, indeed, worthy of all these memorials.
But when I imagine Lori in that Iraqi hospital I know her last thoughts
were of her children. Her parents. Her extended family.
I know Lori envisioned her remote and beautiful Hopi homeland under a huge
sky half a world away. I know she wanted to be home.
Military service should be an option for young Native men and women. It
should not be the only option.
And I believe in my heart the greatest honor we can give Lori is for
American Indians and non-Indians to unite in a commitment to provide jobs
and opportunity for all Indian people, so that our young men and women need
not die on foreign soil trying to provide for their families a quality of
life they should have here, at home.
That, my friends, would truly be a memorial worthy of the sacrifice made by
Army Spc. Lori Piestewa and all the Native men and women who have given
their lives for this country.
They deserve no less.
Wayne Taylor Jr. is chairman and CEO of the Hopi Tribe of Arizona.