The Battle of Piestewa Peak

The name of Squaw Peak in north-central Phoenix was changed to Piestewa Peak last year to honor Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the first female American Indian soldier to be killed in combat. Piestewa, a Hopi mother of two, was killed last March 23rd, when her company was ambushed near Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Now there appears to be an effort in the Arizona legislature to reverse the name change, presumably because Gov. Janet Napolitano strong-armed the State Board on Geographic and Historic Names into bypassing normal procedures.

As reported by E.J. Montini in The Arizona Republic:

[O]ne of the first things Arizona legislators hope to accomplish this year involves finding a way for state government to once again sanction the word “squaw.”

In particular, a large group of Republican legislators is very interested in returning Spc. Lori Piestewa to the status of squaw by restoring the name of the Phoenix mountain that was changed last year in her honor.

The legislative effort is led by Rep. Phil Hansen of Peoria, Arizona.

Hansen is a fifth-generation Arizonan who has had long and honorable careers in both the private sector and the military.

“Those people who give the final sacrifice for their country I hold in the highest regard,” he said. “But I don’t hold Lori Piestewa in any higher regard than any other person from Arizona who died for their country. And the fact that she may be the first American Indian woman to die in the service of the United States to me is immaterial. To me she’s still a soldier and should have no more recognition than any other person that that happened to.”

Perhaps we honor all of our lost soldiers when we honor any one. After all, we would not say that naming Luke Air Force Base after one man did a disservice to the others from Arizona who gave their lives over foreign skies, would we? Besides, if we change the name of Piestewa Peak now, it means going back to squaw, which would be like going back about 100 years to a time when calling a native woman such a thing was acceptable. Would anyone do it now? Would Hansen?

“For the first part of my life I rarely came face to face with an Indian,” said Hansen, who’s 71. “They were very reclusive. You’d see them on the street in Phoenix selling baskets or pottery or whatever. More recently I don’t know that the subject has ever come up. I have a dictionary that has a date of 1977 on it. I looked up squaw and it doesn’t say anything about it being derogatory.”

He said he wouldn’t use the term to describe a Native American woman now, but not because it was insulting. Only because it wasn’t contemporary and had a more “historical quality” to it. Perhaps like those historical words we once used to describe African-Americans. If the governor were asked to approve one of those words for a landmark I’d hope she would do what she should do if a “Squaw Peak” bill lands on her desk. Veto it.

Read the entire Montini column.