Pfc. Piestewa honored

TUBA CITY, Ariz. - It was an especially poignant moment that had hundreds of people drying their eyes near the end of Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa's memorial service April 5.

Four-year-old Brandon Whiterock, one of two children of the only Native American woman killed in combat on foreign soil, had made his way to the stage, with several of his young cousins, to pay tribute to his mother.

Brandon didn't hesitate. He sought out the microphone. "I'm praying for my mommy to come home," he said, pausing slightly. "But I know she's an angel now."

That was the theme throughout the five-hour memorial service before 5,000 mourners in honor of the former junior ROTC commander and high school softball star, whose death during an ambush of her mechanics unit in southern Iraq elevated her to near icon status in her home state and among Native Americans throughout the country.

The body of Piestewa, a Hopi tribal member, had arrived in the wee hours of that morning and her family, seeking some manner of privacy among the media blitz, had a funeral service shortly after dawn at a Tuba City Catholic Church. Piestewa was buried in the traditional Hopi way in the nearby village of Moenkopi.

At the memorial service at Tuba City High School's Warrior Pavilion, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano prominently addressed a controversy which was the talk of the state after Piestewa was listed as killed in action a week before the memorial.

Like many states, Arizona has a land formation named after an offensive Native American moniker. Squaw Peak, which is a popular hiking area, is located north of downtown Phoenix. The city also has a Squaw Peak Freeway, located in the general vicinity of the desert mountain. For years, state Sen. Jack Jackson Sr., a member of the Navajo Nation from Window Rock, has been trying unsuccessfully to get the names changed through the legislative process.

Napolitano received a standing ovation from the crowd when she said that she would petition the state Board of Geographic Names to have Squaw Peak designated an Arizona landmark and have its name changed to Piestewa Peak. Napolitano said she also will petition to rename Squaw Peak Freeway as Piestewa Freeway.

Napolitano called Piestewa a "fiery young woman, a loving sister, daughter and devoted mother."

The governor then presented Piestewa's parents with a state flag which had flown over the capitol in Phoenix in honor of the 23-year-old woman, a single mother of two small children.

Members of tribes throughout the West attended the ceremony.

Lisa Thompson, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in Fort Yates, N.D., said she and seven other tribal members drove 30 hours to attend the service and deliver a quilt to the Piestewa family.

"Everybody was like, 'Bring us back some newspapers.' It really affected everyone hard in our area," Thompson said.

Hutch Noline, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, drove more than five hours to attend the ceremony. Noline said Piestewa's death took on special significance for him since his cousin, Michael Noline, was the first Arizonan and Native American to die in the 1991 Gulf War.

"I was in the Army during the Vietnam War era and I was thinking about how all of us would call each other 'Skins' when we would see another Native American wherever we were stationed," Noline said. "I kept my hopes up for her until the end but when I heard she died I just broke down and cried. It was very important for me to attend this. I heard so many tribes, Navajo, Hopi, Tohono O'odham, praying during this service."

Tony Tsosie of Rough Rock, Ariz., a relative of Piestewa's former husband, Bill Whiterock, 24, of Tuba City, also said he and his family had driven several hours to see the service. They were busily signing large poster boards with condolences to the Piestewa family.

"You will be respected and not forgotten," their message said. It also offered recognition to Whiterock and his children.

Meanwhile, in the main part of the pavilion, the Aztec Dancers of Phoenix blew mournfully into their wind instruments and incense rose in the air as the crowd drew tearfully silent.

Then, a member of Piestewa's family, Manuel Baca Jr., read a poem as a slide show of photos from Lori's life was projected on a large screen behind him."Today her life on Earth has passed. But here, it starts anew."

Lori's brother, Wayland Piestewa, ended the service, recounting for the crowd how he and other family members had been at a Phoenix airport for the arrival of the casket at 3:30 a.m. that same morning.

Wayland Piestewa said all the family members "laughed and joked" with Lori before she said, "it's time to go." Piestewa then exhorted the crowd that "it's time" for all those in attendance to be good fathers, mothers, husbands and wives.

"And, for the military, it's time to end the war," Wayland said.