Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mountain near Phoenix is renamed Piestewa Peak.

Mountain renamed for fallen Arizonan soldier is so much more than a name change.

Mountains change on a geological time scale that is invisible to us as short-lived humans. Changing the name of a mountain near Phoenix, Arizona seemed for a while to be moving almost that slowly, but finally after years of controversy, the mountain formerly known as Squaw Peak is finally rid of that offensive name. The new name, Piestewa Peak, honors a native Arizonan, Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa who was the first American Indian woman to die in battle as a U.S. soldier.

The American Indian peoples of the Southwest have been recognized as patriotic and proud to serve in the United States military in the last few decades. The Navajo Code talkers contributions to cryptography during WWII have become widely known and celebrated. Ira Hayes, one of the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima, was Akimel O’odham (once called Pima Indians) and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community.

For a mountain in Arizona to bear the name of an Arizonan armed services member who gave her life in battle should not in and of itself be remarkable. However, today's Federal recognition of the name Piestewa Peak is quite notable for many reasons.

An American Indian woman has been honored. American Indians continue to battle the consequences of what was on some fronts the attempted genocide of their ancestors and various inequities, insults and abuses that are ongoing to this day. It is good to honor the sacrifice of an individual for her country. It is even more meaningful when that woman is from a cultural group that has been mistreated by that country even though such honors do nothing to ameliorate inequities.

An American Indian woman has been honored. The old name of the mountain was insulting and derogatory to all women. While the meaning and etymology of the word squaw is disputed is has come to be associated with an insulting name for female genitalia. It is not a word in any American Indian language although it does share great similarity to a suffix some Eastern North American Indian languages use to denote feminine status of a word. The exact history of the word is not important, what is important is that is has come to be associated with a word in the English language that cannot be printed in any polite publication whether it originally had this meaning or not. Let us just say that the word in English starts with a "c."

A word that insults American Indians has been removed from the name of a mountain near the 4th largest city in the U.S. Attempts to get the word squaw removed as a place name for hundreds of place names is an ongoing battle. This renaming is a significant win in this battle. This is a very visible name change as the mountain is a visible icon for the Phoenix area, the fourth largest metropolitan area in the U.S.

A word that insults women has been removed from the name of a mountain. All women have benefited from the removal of an insult to their gender. There is a meaningful and powerful relationship between individual word usage and cultural indoctrination to and acceptance of words.

This renaming also gives us an opportunity to discuss the economic draft. Lori Piestewa died for her country. While we can discuss the legitimacy of the U.S. being in Iraq, there is no need to discuss the bravery and valor of being willing to give your all, literally, in the defense of your country. Lori was a brave and courageous woman. But who was she? Pfc. Lori Piestewa was the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the granddaughter of a World War I veteran. Her father was a Hopi Indian and her mother was of Mexican descent. Piestewa was a single mother with two children, a boy and a girl both under age 5. This makes me wonder by a single parent was in a war zone. At one time our country imposed restrictions on where single parents could be posted in order to preserve the families. Why would a woman with two children join the military? I cannot speak for Lori, but thousands upon thousands of individuals from economically repressed areas resort to joining the military in what essentially constitutes an economic draft when other employment opportunities are not available in their home communities. Tuba City, Lori's home town, is in the Navajo Reservation is close to Hopi land. Wikipedia describes her home town Tuba City, thusly" "[Tuba City], compared to other towns and villages in Navajoland, is somewhat less impoverished than other Navajo towns, as the median household income is $38,556. The median income for a household in the CDP [census-designated place] was $38,556, and the median income for a family was $37,813. Males had a median income of $29,280 versus $26,855 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $10,479. About 23.1% of families and 28.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 33.0% of those under age 18 and 44.8% of those age 65 or over." (source: Wikipedia.)

This Federal acceptance of the new name validates the struggle that Arizona Govenor Janet Napolitano and thousands of other Arizonans had to wage to combat conservative resistance to renaming Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak to honor Pfc. Lori Peistewa and all those Arizonans who have given their lives in the line of duty.


adriana said...

This is a nice honor, but I hope that her family can gain some financial bearing in all of this. They were given a beautiful home to live in (Shea Homes), but as I understand, they will have to start making the tax and utility payments in a few years and don't have the income to do so. It was actually covered in the LA Times about a year ago.

nfh said...

Your comment raises lots of questions for me. Who exactly do you mean by Lori's family? Her children? Their guardian? How many years are a few years? What is the amount? Why is that beyond their economic capacity. Good points but we need a lot more data.

Lori has become an icon and the personal is stripped away when you come to represent an idea, event, or process. Unfortunately Piestewa Peak will become less and less about Lori, and more and more about the idea of Lori Piestewa, Pfc. We know that icons are manipulated by the media. Look at what happened to Lori's friend Jessica.