New Native Nation Piestewa

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New Native Nation Guest Essay
A Death in the Desert: The Legacy of Lori Piestewa
By Tom Berger

More than three months after Pfc. Lori Piestewa's death March 23 in an Iraqi ambush near Nasiryah, the telephone calls still come every day to the Hopi tribal offices in Kykotsmovi, Arizona. The callers are American veterans who want to memorialize her, remember her sacrifice, make donations for the care of her children; the callers are Australians and Austrians and Kuwaitis and other people from around the world; many of the calls come from Muslim countries. Lori Piestewa, a young Native American Private First Class in the U.S. Army, touched something universal in the human spirit.

"I don't know what it was, but she touched everybody," Hopi spokesperson Vanessa Charles said.

Piestewa (pronounced py-ESS-tuh-wah) was the 23-year-old mother of two children--a 4-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. She was assigned to the 507th Maintenance Company and died with 11 other soldiers in an ambush when the convoy, slowed by heavy equipment and having taken a wrong turn, came under heavy enemy fire.

Piestewa is believed to have been the first Native American woman to die in combat in a foreign war.

"Her death came as such a strong, debilitating blow to all of us," Charles said in a telephone interview from her tribal office. "When we first heard about it, we knew only that it could be one of our own, but we didn't know who it was, much less that it was a woman. When we found out who it was, it really struck a chord and it has continued to hit people hard. She was so young and she was a mother. It struck everyone on a lot of different levels."

Charles said that while she understood the impact of a young woman's death, and especially that of a young mother, Piestewa's gender was not the strongest shock that rippled through the tribe.

"It didn't make any difference to us," she said. "She was just one of the tribe. Of course, this is a matrilineal society and matriarchal at that. But the fact that she was a member of this tribe is what struck a chord. Naturally, anywhere in this country or in the world, if a woman dies in the course of a war, it does have more of an impact. But I think what weighs more heavily with people here is the fact that somebody from the tribe died."

About 12,000 people live on the Hopi reservation. Hopi officials said 56 currently serve in the armed forces and that in early April all but eight were in Iraq. Charles said that many Hopi enlisted in order to escape the difficult economic conditions found on the reservation.

"On many Indian reservations, in a practical sense there isn't much to do," she said. "Just trying to support your family is difficult. The military is a good avenue for people to do that. Apart from that, we are Americans, too. When the call comes out to defend the freedom we have, like everyone else who is American, the Hopi will answer."

Charles pointed out in an April article in the El Paso Times that answering the call doesn't come without a unique set of internal conflicts.

"There's no warring tradition in Hopi," she told the newspaper. "Hopis are considered peaceful, and they are considered the caretakers of the Earth. That's where the conflict comes in."

In the weeks following her death, Piestewa was honored at the urging of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano when Squaw Peak, in near-north central Phoenix, was renamed Piestewa Peak, a move that came with its own controversy. Richard Pinkerton, a member of the state Geographic and Historic Names Board, citing concerns that the governor had pressured the board into changing the name, resigned. He was replaced by a Native American woman.

While the name change has been approved on the state level, questions remain when the change will appear on maps. The state board waived its five-year waiting period, but it could still take that long for federal geographic naming authorities to consider the change and reprint official maps. A name change had been under consideration in Arizona for several years, as Native American groups had long objected to "Squaw Peak," saying the name was demeaning to Indians. Until Piestewa's death, an appropriate replacement name had not been found. Arizona officials now argue that there is no need for the federal government to drag out the final name-change process.

Hopi spokesperson Charles said that while the tribe was happy the mountain was no longer called Squaw Peak, the naming of the mountain after a single tribal member conflicted with yet another fundamental cultural value of the Hopi people.

"The Hopi are intensely private," she said. "Anything that draws attention to the individual can be difficult. We try to shy away from anything that draws attention to one person because it is not humble to draw attention to yourself. Everyone is happy it's no longer Squaw Peak--and not just among the Hopi but in the whole state. There are 22 tribes in the state. Nobody really wanted that name there. I know the governor talked to the family about it, though, and they were in agreement with the name change. But everything happened so fast."

In addition to renaming the mountain, in early May the Squaw Peak Freeway (Arizona 51) became the Lori Piestewa Freeway.

Her name is now mentioned nationally in the same breath with the famed Navajo Code Talkers of World War II as an example of the contributions and sacrifices made by Native Americans to the defense of the United States.

And the telephone calls keep coming into Vanessa Charles' tribal office.

"We understand the significance of her death in the country and the world," Charles said. "God bless all of the people who have felt compelled to call and have wanted to do something. They are concerned about the future of her children. It's wonderful and it's a testament to the fact that there is still humanity among us, regardless of how we might be divided politically or culturally. We're still humans, and we still have compassion for one another. She touched all of us."

About Tom Berger

Tom Berger is a writer for The VVA Veteran, the official voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ® An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. Learn more at

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