Piestewa Peak? American Indians campaign to rename landmark

PHOENIX - In the wake of Pfc. Lori Piestewa's death, a movement to rename Arizona's "Squaw Peak" in her honor is gathering momentum throughout the American Indian community.

Piestewa, killed while serving with the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, was a member of the Hopi Nation from Tuba City, and the first American woman killed in combat. Her body was found among eight American soldiers buried next to an Iraqi hospital in the city of Nasiriyah, where Pfc. Jessica Lynch was rescued by American forces on April 1.

On April 9, a Phoenix paper ran an editorial written by staff member Linda Valdez, suggesting that renaming the mountain in Piestewa's honor might be a fitting tribute to the fallen solider, and a sensitive means of settling the ongoing debate over the landmark's name; many American Indians find the word "squaw" offensive.

Valdez says she doesn't know where the idea originated, but said the newspaper's editorial committee met to discuss the unusual volume of public comments they were receiving about the issue and decided to run the piece. Editorial Editor Ken Western stated that he has received many letters and calls about the issue, the majority of which have been favorable. "Members of the editorial board, whether conservative or liberal, overwhelmingly thought this was a good idea," he said.

A spontaneous e-mail campaign began just hours after the article appeared. Hopi tribal member Deanna Talayumptewa says she has received a lot of e-mail concerning the idea, and has heard the matter discussed on the radio. "Honoring Piestewa, a brave, woman-warrior, would benefit all Native Americans." she says.

Roni Lee, Navajo from Flagstaff, says it doesn't matter what tribe Piestewa belongs to. "She proved women can be fearless and heroic in combat. Her children will have something to live for. She left a legacy for them."

The high amount of Internet, print, and radio attention has empowered the idea. Many believe that if the issue were placed on a ballot, Indians would overwhelmingly support it. "Let the people speak and you'll see how many Native Americans will respond to this issue," Lee says.

One factor could delay or stop the name change altogether. The Arizona State Board on Historic and Geographic Names says the public body that decides such matters, is regulated by the U.S. Geological Survey's federal guidelines for Domestic Geographic Names. Those regulations state that a person must be deceased at least five years before being considered for commemoration. Supporters like Jackson Craig of the Navajo Nation are not discouraged. "She has an outstanding national reputation; time will tell." he said.

Arizona State Representative Jack Jackson Jr., Dem., and State Senator Jack Jackson Sr., Dem., both of District Two, say the idea is thoughtful, however premature. Rep. Jackson, who has received many e-mails, faxes and calls supporting the idea, stated: "I am in awe of the groundswell of public opinion throughout our state honoring U.S. Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa. It's a credit to our society that so many people from every walk of life want to honor her."

After speaking with Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor and the Piestewa family, Jackson says he will not support the idea at this time. "While our zeal to honor Pfc. Piestewa is understandable and laudable, we should respect the feelings and wishes of her family," he said. "They need time to grieve and deal with her passing in their own way, honoring their traditions. Until they feel the time is appropriate for more public honors, I don't think the legislature should presume to go any further."

Jackson Gibson, a Navajo Vietnam veteran from Thoreau, N.M., agrees. "It would be more appropriate to name a gym, library or state building after this American hero rather than a controversial peak." Gibson lost a son in 1989 and presents the annual "Hyrum Gibson Memorial Sportsmanship Award" to deserving athletes of Thoreau High. "Since Lori was a popular athlete at Tuba City High, this could be another way to honor her," he says.

The word "squaw," long a subject of debate throughout America, originates from the Algonquin word "squas," or "young woman." Its real offensiveness lies within its implied meaning in terms of the derision of American Indian women. Rep. Jackson agrees. "The overriding issue of eliminating discrimination and offense to all Indian Nations inherent in the use of the word 'squaw' remains," he said.

"The goal of renaming one of our natural landmarks in honor of Lori Piestewa, while worthy, doesn't solve the long-standing problem of governmental use of this word." Both Jacksons are long-time proponents of renaming the landmark.

Recently, Rep. Jackson introduced H.R. 2424, a bill designed to rename landmarks, geographic features, and highways that contain the word and prohibit its future use. The bill was assigned to a House Committee for review. "While this problem won't be solved in this session," Jackson said, "I plan to continue to fight for this legislation next year. In the future, he and Senator Jackson plan to introduce concurrent resolutions in the House and Senate, honoring the life and service of Pfc. Piestewa.