Against limited but virulent opposition, the great energy and outpouring of heartfelt empathy for the memory of the fallen sister soldier, U.S. Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, has generated a great symbolic victory for Native peoples everywhere. The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic names has approved the renaming of Squaw Peak, located in North-Central Phoenix, to Piestewa Peak.
From where we sit, this is a wonderful accomplishment and a most proper way to honor the heroic and dedicated Hopi hero whose life was sacrificed in service to her Indian nation and America.
We salute and condole the family, relatives and friends of Private Lori. We recognize that their loss calls for an intensely private mourning and that by virtue of fate and circumstances, their private moment has become a public reality. Knowing the nature of media attention, we send our appreciation for your patience and generosity of spirit.
Transformed from living person into historic symbol, in the memory of Lori Piestewa the personal and the universal have joined. This is a mysterious process – perhaps foreshadowed by the early photograph prior to the tragedy – of the young soldier preparing to depart for the field of battle. Thus Lori’s good-bye picture was carried by media across the United States and many had that fleeting sense of knowing her (or of her) while she still walked Mother Earth. Then, when that horrible wrong turn into the worst of neighborhoods took place, there was a sharing in the days of hope and prayer. Thus the news of her loss is felt, universally, by all who paid attention, and have wished the best.
All of Indian country has expressed its support. On NBC, April 19, a break-through Indian-produced documentary on, “The World of American Indian Dance,” ended on a dedication to Lori Piestewa. “We love you, Lori,” the credits read. It brought tears to many eyes. In Phoenix during NIGA’s annual meeting, tribes and individuals contributed more than $85,000 to a special trust fund established for Lori’s children. The Mashantucket Pequot offered $40,000 in scholarship money to Private Lori’s children. Native school children all throughout Indian country, within Canada too, have written to express their heartfelt feelings for their elder sister. Many more in the Native community wrote poems, offered private prayers for the young woman who had gone “over there,” into the dangerous territory of war and whose life was given, in sacrifice, in duty.
While some rather shameless columnists in Arizona have belittled her worth as a military person, the truth of the matter is that Private Lori offered herself into the danger, with pride, with courage and with ultimate heroism. She did not start out to be a hero, but she carried through her commitment, in the way to a family ambition to be the best she could be, and she was. Shame on anyone who would call that down; glory to her act and her fate and to that mysterious and wonderful way that Native America – the grassroots and the tribal leadership together – have taken her memory and her well-being into the collective bosom. Again, this does not happen often, that spark of mutual emotional empathy for one that, without seeking, has come to symbolize much of what we value, in our children, and in each other.
The movement to rename the so-called “Squaw Peak” and to dignify with it with the hero’s name had to wage a quick and intense campaign, led in good measure by Arizona State Governor Janet Napolitano, an immediate proponent of the change. There were plenty of opponents – mostly from the knee-jerk, ultra-right reaction base that often seems to sour on even the sweetest of gestures. The sour commentary from sour people, however, did not prevail, even though it was disturbing and insulting enough. “Why her?” a woman was quoted in one such column, which accused the decision as one of pandering to women and minorities, “Because she is a Native American?”
In crass, vulgar language some so-called columnists in the Phoenix area made much play of the word, “squaw,” which in significant ignorance they passed off as non-offensive, even though it does refer to female genitalia in Mohawk. In a display of pure bigotry, one of these racist gutter-mouths commented freely on the genitals of Indian women and put forth such disrespect that it is hard to countenance a calm response. This guy (Robert Nelson, Phoenix New Times) blithely declared that Lori Piestewa “lacks the characteristics of courage, intelligence and vision needed to get a major landmark named after you.”
The best result of these kinds of bigoted attacks is that they were stopped in their tracks by the reality of an idea whose moment and reason has arrived. We salute Gov. Napolitano for the courage of her convictions. She brought the necessary clout to the campaign. The same board ended up recommending that Squaw Peak Freeway also change names to Lori Piestewa Freeway.
Some had suggested naming a stadium or building after the fallen soldier. But it was the peak that deserved first and most lasting attention. Retired Army Chaplain Caleb Johnson put it best: “Those structures are not permanent, they can easily be torn down or destroyed. But the peak will be here forever.” So too will be our memory of Lori Piestewa.