In what one hopes will put a happy end, or a least an end, to an unpleasant five-year saga, a federal board will vote Thursday on changing the name of the third highest mountain peak in Phoenix from Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak.
From the start, this effort to honor Army Spc. Lori Ann Piestewa, believed to be the first American Indian woman to die in combat as a member of the U.S. military, has been tarnished by controversy.
Each public mention of Piestewa Peak has launched a battle of words between those who want to recognize the young Hopi mother of two from Tuba City and those who view the effort to remove the word “squaw” from the name of the favored Phoenix hiking spot as another example of political correctness being shoved down their throats.
In 2003, Gov. Janet Napolitano played political hardball when the State Board on Geographic and Historic Names wouldn’t hear a proposal to re-name the peak because of a state policy against naming landmarks after a person until five years after his or her death. Napolitano prevailed – the name was changed to Piestewa on state maps and documents – but her tactics left some Arizonans seething.
The vote Thursday in Washington, D.C., is the culmination of a separate federal process to change names on federal maps and documents.
In the more than 300 comments submitted to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for this week’s meeting (running 2-1 in favor of the new name), anger at Napolitano’s methods was one of the top three reasons opponents cited in asking the board to reject the proposal.
I say, get over it. If the state process was flawed, that was then. This is the federal process and the guidelines, including the five-year waiting period, have been followed.
A number of commenters to the federal board also argued there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the word squaw.
There is debate over the origin of the word, which may be rooted in an innocuous word for young woman or wife or may have come from a more vulgar term.
But in the 1800s and 1900s, settlers used the word to demean and stereotype American Indian women as dirty drudges, beasts of burden with no rights and no sense of morality, said K. Tsianina Lomawaima, head of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.
“I think that anyone who would argue that in 2008 that the word today carries no negative connotation is just ridiculous,” she said. “I think it would be right up there with the n-word for African-Americans.”
Tom Holm, a UA professor of American Indian Studies and Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, said he’s heard the argument that squaw is part of the state’s Wild West history and naming traditions.
“They don’t want to change this because they think it’s part of their culture. But part of their culture is racist,” he said.
The most dismissive argument of opponents is that Piestewa was no hero, just a hapless Beetle Bailey. One commenter to the federal board wrote, “This Piestewa was not a hero of any kind. She simply wrecked a truck when making a wrong turn, and that led to half her platoon getting wiped out.”
Such ignorance of the facts is offensive.
On March 23, 2003, Piestewa was the driver of the last vehicle in a convoy that took a wrong turn under a captain’s direction and drove right into the town of Nasiriyah and an ambush by Iraqi soldiers, according to a 2004 Rolling Stone account of Piestewa’s life and death.
She was driving herself and other soldiers out from under the attack when her Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, causing the vehicle to careen into a tractor-trailer driven by another American soldier. She died of her injuries.
People can decide for themselves whether her actions were heroic. In my eyes, anyone who sacrifices their life while serving our country is heroic.
She didn’t have to be there. When her unit was preparing to deploy, Piestewa was recovering from surgery for a shoulder injury. She had to argue to be allowed to go fight a war that she could have sat out at home.
A variation of the “she’s no hero” argument is the assertion by some commenters that honoring Piestewa is an affront to all the other Arizona warriors who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They ask, what makes her special?
The answer is the renaming pays homage to all women and all American Indians who have served in the military.
This seems appropriate in a state that has the third largest American Indian population in the country and a legacy that includes Ira Hayes and the Navajo and Hopi Code Talkers.
But more important, Piestewa is a symbol of all the young men and women from Arizona – regardless of color, ethnicity or gender – who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recognizing her, we also recognize those fallen warriors.
Sadly, I suspect if she had been a white male it would be much easier for some Arizonans to grasp that simple truth.
The federal board voting on the renaming is taking comments through Tuesday. E-mail: BGNEXEC@usgs.gov