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“Sorry, Haters”
By Judith K. Witherow


            When I saw the above named DVD on the shelf at our local Blockbusters, I assumed it was about the ongoing name change battle in Phoenix, AZ. Since the death of Spc. Lori Piestewa in Iraq and Governor Janet Napolitano’s effort to right a long standing wrong, there has been non-stop controversy surrounding the efforts both pro and con.

            My reaction was a natural response because I’ve been following the controversy involved and writing an article about the furor over changing “Squ*w” Peak and “Squ*w” Parkway to Piestewa Peak and Piestewa Parkway. This mountain peak has numerous hiking trails of various heights and distance, and the area offers diverse interests for many. It seemed beyond belief that people from numerous walks of life, race, class and cultures could lose their sense of decency at what seemed like a fitting tribute to a fallen warrior. Most of all the name change would rid my people of two more racist names assigned by white men. The outrage against the name change ranged from frothing at the mouth anger to pure nonsense.

            Spc. Lori Piestewa sustained life ending injuries on March 23, 2003. Her death occurred during an attack serving with the U.S. military in the Iraq/Pakistan invasion. She had the option of retreat, but chose to stay and help her comrades in battle. She was the first Native American woman to die in combat on foreign soil in the service of the United States.

            Piestewa, a Hopi woman from Tuba City, AZ., was a mere twenty three years old when she deployed willingly despite medical clearance due to a shoulder injury. Her two children were to stay with their grandparents until her expected return to the Navajo Reservation.

            The Hopi tribe has a long tradition of non-violence. This may seem like a contradiction when she willingly joined in defense of country, but this conviction is held with the lifelong belief that from the beginning of life your goal is to help others. This way of life extends from family, clan and carries through to the community and nation.

            Considering the bio attributed to Piestewa, one could say that others might be more deserving of the name change. If we were only describing her personal or military background, that would be reason for argument. However, when you look at the larger picture the time was perfect to rid ourselves of another demeaning term on a landmark. Piestewa had the stature to fill the role in accomplishing this goal and obliterating the hated female term.

            After Lori’s death, Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano suggested the name change to the Republican majority legislature. Her request turned into one of the biggest battles she had yet to encounter. Napolitano argued changing the name of the landmark would be an appropriate tribute to Piestewa while removing the word “squ*w.” The definition of this word has been debated and disagreed upon by countless people. It’s been commonly referred to as meaning female genitalia. Regardless of what anyone believes, if many who it impacts find something derogatory in the definition, it should be respected as such and the use discontinued. (There are plenty of cases that can be cited in defense of this argument.) Even if it should ever be determined to mean something else, the practice of using this name in defining Native American women is racist beyond all reason.

            The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names renamed the mountain soon after it was brought up for a vote after a divisive debate. When I heard about it I was overjoyed. However, the federal board requires a five year waiting period before it changes the name on maps and other federal publications. The name of the deceased is not allowed on publications for this amount of time to allow a cooling down period for those who are either pro or con on the subject of the name change. At the time I was naïve enough to think that it was ridiculous. Who could possibly be against a name so ugly, and not embrace the honor of a young woman who personified the things this country stood for in so many ways? Even though I live in spitting distance of the stadium where the  Washington R*dskins football team plays, it still seemed like few would be in disagreement after the five year wait. Naïve be damned! It was borderline stupidity at its worst.

            In March of 2008 my partner and I started looking through travel guides and tour books. We have good friends who live in Arizona so we decided to call them about a visit. They live in Tucson, and the last time we visited years earlier we bought Saguaro seeds. The cactus seeds were planted and three cacti survived in three separate households. It was time to return them to the desert from which they had originated. This was another reason for renewing our tie to a totally different area than the east.

            When Sue found “Piestewa Peak” in a tour book, we decided to fly into Phoenix and then drive to Tucson. (She also found Lori’s name on a map.) That clinched our plans.

            The day after we arrived we drove directly to what we thought would be Piestewa Peak and Parkway as the guides stated. When I saw the large green destination signs my heart dropped. On the large green and white sign were the words Squ*w Peak. I looked at Sue in disbelief. We went two hours out of our way so that we could take pictures of the wonderful event that had taken place on the state level five years earlier, and the federal change that was about to be decided. The long anticipated moment turned to a mixture of disbelief and anger.

            How long were we---the first people in this land—going to be treated as third world and third class? Apparently without time limit at the rate we’ve been forced to accept these numerous wrongs that were promoted as “noble.” Non-stop battles for changing racist names are constantly being judged as wrong, and we are determined to right these wrongs. Names of everything from sports teams to geographical areas are being challenged. The bill of goods sold to us from the beginning has worn us down so far that we’ve fallen to the bottom of every chart, be it the worst health statistics, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, lack of self determination on reservations, etc., etc. “How long?” How long, in the words of a man who fought for the dream of his people.

            We went to the visitors’ center, and I posed in front of the metal park sign where the words, Squ*w Peak” are boldly displayed. Below the sign was information about what to expect concerning this beautiful landmark. We took stunning photographs of Piestewa Peak and diverse desert vegetation. An awe inspiring experience, lessened by a hated racist name many accepted and were prepared to see remain.

            On April 10, 2008 the names were federally changed to Piestewa Peak and Piestewa Parkway with a vote of 11—2. It’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to replace the signs. Lou Yost, the board’s executive secretary, said from D.C. that the two members who voted against the change argued that “Piestewa didn’t have a direct association with the mountain, and is not of regional or national prominence.” They still don’t get it! I guess it’s akin to renaming National Airport after Ronald Reagan. Maybe he looked over at the airport or something. Then there is Mount Rushmore. A sacred mountain to many of us, but it was desecrated with the faces of four white men. They probably all climbed it at one time or another. Some have even petitioned to have Reagan chiseled in alongside the others. At least they have one of the words correct—chiseler--in my not so humble opinion. Perhaps I hit my head when I fell through his security net along with untold others.

            I’ve observed numerous name changes over the years, but I have never heard the amount of discussion this one landmark has generated. In all fairness many were of the majority ruling class so asking our opinion might not have been deemed necessary. With that fact in mind I’m only going to write the negative words that others put forth in different forms of correspondence reported. They will be followed by quotes from those who were deeply committed to this overwhelming victory from the beginning and understood the importance of defending the dignity involving self worth.


            Many sources argued that Piestewa, the first American Indian woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military, deserved to have a site named in her honor. But others have argued that Squ*w peak should represent all veterans. In an 11-2 vote, the U.S Board on Geographic Names, whose members represent Agriculture, Homeland Security, and other federal departments, agreed to change the name of the summit, a move that follows action taken by a state panel in 2003. The new name will be used on maps and other federal publications, although “Squ*w Peak” may appear on such documents as a second reference.


Bob Hiatt: Works in cataloging and support office for the Library of Congress along with a representative of the U.S. Census Bureau—”I don’t think she (Lori) met the requirements,” Hiatt said, “She had no direct association with the feature. She lived in northern Arizona. Any celebrity she had was as a result of what the governor of Arizona did.”


Scott Gilbert: “It’s always going to be Squ*w Peak to me,” said Phoenix resident Scott Gilbert as he prepared Thursday for one of his regular hikes at the site. “I have a son who is a Marine and don’t think this is a case to name the mountain after one person.” (Scott, how would you feel if it was a daughter, and she was Native American?) JKW


AZ. “Whatever, have the map call it that. We all know what we will be calling it. And it will not be because I don’t respect Lori, it’s that I respect tradition more.”

“I will always call it squ*w peak, and will refer to it that way to anyone who calls it otherwise. This is such a political, leftist boo hoo issue I wanna gag.”


Larry Wayt: Leader of a local hiking group who runs the squ* Web site, said he was disappointed in the federal boards decision to rename the peak. “A lot of the words that are considered offensive are still used, and that really doesn’t enter into it as far as I’m concerned,” he said. Wayt who served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 22 years, before retiring in 1977, said the board should have left the name the same or changed it for all veterans.


The Decision: The national board has a criteria to institute a geographic name change in their Principles, Policies and Procedures for Domestic Geographic Names manual which the name Piestewa fitted well. It met the derogatory definition, that Squ*w is a term demeaning to Native Americans. It met the “commemorative names” definition as the Lori Ann Piestewa name is held in respect and honor for her sacrifices as a soldier whereas she was the first Native American woman killed in combat while serving for the U.S. military and is known throughout the state and the country as well, even known to some populations in Canada and Mexico. It met the “local usage” definition as it is a name that has been used for the past five years since Lori Piestewa’s death in 2003.


Arizona Native Scene

Comments: Joe A. Garcia, President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Ernest Martinez leader of the Piestewa Memorial Committee and Priscilla Piestewa

Joe A Garcia: wrote “Such a step in changing the name is a remarkable improvement for the U.S. Government to recognize that American Indian communities no longer accepting the derogatory and negative imagery. The Hopi people should be proud and honored that such a step has been taken to honor one of their bravest citizens.”


Ernest Martinez: Through an email Martinez stated, “It is a victory for women in general and the American Indian, but just as importantly it was a historic and lasting contribution to the progress of this nation in being sensitive and valuing diversity.”


Priscilla Piestewa: Said she offered a prayer to her daughter after hearing the news of the official name change. “I said, ‘It’s a blessing that you gave your life. Not just for a friend but for the great, the small. For everybody.'"




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