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Remembering Lori Ann Piestewa: Hopi Woman Warrior

It was a crisp, March Arizona morning when Percy Piestewa heard from her daughter Lori Piestewa for the very last time.“We’re going in,” Lori wrote in an e-mail, “Take care of the babies, and I’ll see you when I get back.”

Lori, a member of the 507th Army Maintenance Company, was traveling with her crew in a convoy in the early days of the Iraq War when the caravan ran headlong into an ambush near Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

Lori, driving one of the group’s Humvees, was initially able to avoid incoming fire, but in the end her vehicle was disabled by a rocket-propelled grenade. The blast slammed the Humvee into a tractor-trailer, killing three passengers and leaving Lori with severe head wounds. Taken prisoner with others of her company, she died at an Iraqi civilian hospital.

The first woman killed in the Iraq War, and the first American Indian woman to die in combat in the U.S. armed forces, Lori was 23 years old, and a Hopi warrior.

The youngest of four children, Lori Ann Piestewa was born in 1980 in Tuba City, Arizona, a border town between the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Her Hopi name, Köcha-Hon-Mana, means “White Bear Girl. Her parents, Terry Piestewa and Priscilla (Percy) Baca-Piestewa, raised their children in a modest, but loving home with respect for family and cultural values.

An energetic student and tough competitor, Lori pitched and played second base on the Tuba City High School softball team. She was also active in ROTC.

In 1997, she married her high school sweetheart, Bill Whiterock, a Navajo, and moved with him to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where Bill served in the U.S. Army. The marriage produced two children, Brandon Terry, born in 1998, and Carla Lynn in 1999. Unfortunately the marriage did not last, so Lori set her sights on a military career.

After her death, Lori was returned home and now rests on the Hopi reservation near Tuba City. Her two young children, Brandon and Carla, were entrusted to the care of her parents.

In retrospect, Lori’s brief life was not much different than that of most native kids growing up in reservation communities. As is the case in many Indian homes, both her grandfather who served in World War II, and her father, who served in Vietnam, embraced the warrior tradition, a pride they instilled in their children. After her death, PFC Lori Piestewa, was awarded the Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal, and posthumously promoted from the rank of Private First Class to the rank of Specialist.

Although almost everyone in a tribal community knows everyone else, the chances of notoriety outside the reservation are slim. Lori Piestewa, however, was an exception. Her heart, spirit, and undaunted courage made her an icon for Indians and non-Indians alike.

Her tragic passing became a catalyst for beneficial awards and community projects. Within weeks after her death, a grassroots movement among Indians from tribal nations across North America created a clamor to change the name of Arizona’s “Squaw Peak” to “Piestewa Peak.” The tremendous outpouring of native support for the name change prompted then-governor Janet Napolitano to push the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names to abandon the usual five-year waiting period and make the change immediately. It was a controversial move, but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names finally sanctioned the change April 10, 2008. Most Native Americans saw it as a huge victory.

Piestewa has been memorialized at the Mount Soledad Veteran’s Memorial in California; at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico where a tree was planted in her honor; and at Fort Bliss, Texas. She was also featured in an exhibit at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, at Arlington National Cemetery. In 2003, the National Indian Gaming Association received over $85,000 in pledges for the Lori Piestewa Memorial Fund, a fund to benefit her children.

Finally, in 2003, Grand Canyon State Games announced its inaugural Lori Piestewa National Native American Games, stating, “Lori’s passion for sports will be emblematic of the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment the participants will put forth in this competition.” According to the Arizona Sports Council, the Games are affiliated with 47 other state games throughout the United States, and are sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee through the National Congress of State Games. In 2010, over 30,000 Arizonans participated, making it the largest Native American athletic gathering in the nation.

This past March 23, friends and fellow veterans gathered at Piestewa Peak to honor Lori’s memory and the sacrifices of all fallen soldiers at an 8th Annual Sunrise Ceremony. In an interview posted on the Jessica Lynch Forum, Lori’s brother Wayland expressed awe over his sister’s notoriety. “My parents have been visiting tribes all over the nation since Lori's death and Piestewa Peak is a symbol of honor and pride among all Indian peoples.”

In 2007, Lori’s father, told the Arizona Republic, “The Hopi believe that once you go on your journey, you don’t look back.” Still, there can be no denying that Lori Piestewa left an indelible mark on the world she left behind.