Every year, half a million hikers scale 2,600-foot Piestewa Peak, one of the highest crests in Phoenix and recently renamed as a memorial to Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat on foreign soil. But to reach the hiking trail, visitors first must travel Squaw Peak Drive, a mile-long residential street at the heart of a controversy that is pitting lawmakers against property owners. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton last fall began pushing to change the street’s name, which includes a derogatory term for Native American women.
“The current street name is derogatory and offensive to many, especially Native Americans,” Stanton said in an email to ICMN. “Per my request, staff is looking to change it in a manner that’s least inconvenient to people living near Piestewa Peak.”
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Homeowners, however, delivered a signed petition in February, urging the city to leave the name alone. The street is the sole reminder that Piestewa Peak, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the state, for more than a century was called Squaw Peak.
The state, in an effort spearheaded by Gov. Janet Napolitano, officially renamed the peak in April 2003—one month after Piestewa died in combat. The city also renamed State Route 51, known as Squaw Peak Parkway, after Piestewa.
Piestewa, Hopi, was 23 in March 2003 when her convoy made a wrong turn near Nasiriyah, Iraq, and ran into an ambush. She and three other soldiers were killed.
Stanton’s initiative to change the street’s name marks the first public attempt to right what many see as a historic wrong. It also comes as Native activists push for the removal of derogatory names nationwide.
“Like the R-word, the S-word is riddled all over the United States and used in derogatory ways that are constant reminders of historical trauma,” said Amanda Blackhorse, a Phoenix resident and lead plaintiff in the trademark lawsuit against the Washington Redskins.
“We are in a time when changes are happening, and we need to re-examine all these words,” said Blackhorse, who is Navajo. “People are learning more, understanding more, and we as Native Americans have a voice because we have demanded that the rest of the world stop referring to us in historical, disparaging terms.”
Yet homeowners contend the name should not be changed because they are not offended. In a presentation to the Phoenix City Council in February, resident Alice Jones described a sense of nostalgia for the street’s name.
“It is easy to believe that if homeowners had been offended by the name, they would have not purchased property there in the first place,” Jones told the council on February 15. She and her husband bought a home on Squaw Peak Drive 48 years ago.
Blackhorse blasted that reasoning and argued that the use of offensive terms—especially after learning why they are offensive—is evidence that residents are failing to see Native Americans as real people.
“I hear that residents are saying it’s not offensive to them,” she said. “Of course it’s not, because they’re not Native American. They can’t tell us how to be offended, and—this is very simple—it doesn’t matter if they’re not offended. What matters is our voice.”
Homeowners also are pointing to the “excessive and unnecessary” cost to taxpayers should the city have to change signage along the street. A spokeswoman for the city said it would cost about $2,000 to replace existing street signs.
The petition, signed by 16 of about 20 homeowners on the street, may stop the proposed change. According to city policy, 75 percent of property owners affected by a name change must support it.
But the city’s Human Relations Commission, a citizens’ advisory board tasked with making recommendations to the mayor and city council, is siding with Mayor Stanton. The board voted unanimously earlier this year to direct the council to ignore city policy.
“Given the circumstances and offensiveness of the name, we recommended that the mayor and council bypass the process and change the name,” said Brendan Mahoney, an attorney and chairman of the Human Relations Commission.
“My answer to all this is just to use good manners,” he said. “If a street name offends someone, don’t use it. I don’t understand why someone would dig their feet in solely for the sake of insulting someone else.”
Although the origin of the word ‘squaw’ is unknown, it likely began as a term for women in the Algonquian languages. White settlers transcribed it into English and the word took on derogatory undertones, often used to demean or stereotype Native women.
The word is especially difficult for Kristin Payestewa, a Phoenix resident and third cousin to Lori Piestewa. Payestewa, who was 15 when her cousin was killed, frequents the peak.
“When you drive up there, when you are Native and you are a woman and you see that term on the signs, you spend the whole drive thinking about that,” she said. “I hold a lot of value in being a woman, and when people say the word ‘squaw,’ it makes me feel really dirty, it makes me feel like less of a woman, it makes me feel labeled. It threatens the respect I hold for myself and for other women.”
The irony of the offensive street name, Payestewa said, is that residents are claiming sentimentality as a reason for keeping it. If they really want to honor Native women, why not name the street after a true Native hero?
“Lori’s name signifies a lot,” Payestewa said. “Changing that name is minor compared to the changes we made as Native women in order to survive the tragedies and genocides that came with colonization. We have the chance to make a statement with this street name, and it should be positive instead of derogatory.”