WASHINGTON, D.C. - Inspired by a state effort to honor fallen solder Lori Ann Piestewa, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names on April 10 followed Arizona's footsteps and voted 11 to 2 to change the name of Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak.
The decision, which officially changes the name of the mountain at the federal level, comes five years after the Arizona State Board on Geographic Names agreed with Governor Napolitano's recommendation to rename the Phoenix mountain at the state level shortly after Piestewa's death on March 23, 2003. The decision is being hailed by many Native Americans as a step toward bringing people together in this country.
Hopi Chairman Benjamin Nuvamsa said renaming the mountain after Piestewa not only honors the first Indigenous woman to die in combat while serving the U.S. military, but for many also signifies national recognition that the use of the word "squaw" is disrespectful of Native American women.
"Our congratulations go out to the board," Nuvamsa said. "It is time names that are offensive, that are derogatory, are changed."
On the same day, Nuvamsa said the board also changed the names of 13 other geographic landmarks across the country containing the word squaw.
Nuvamsa, who testified before the board in Washington, D.C. supporting the renaming of the mountain, said the decision to change the name was an emotional experience for him, not only because it is a fitting correction of a century-old insult, but also because he knows the Piestewa family.
"The name change honors a woman who made the ultimate sacrifice for [this] country," Nuvamsa said. "It was a noble thing for her to do. She left behind two young children. She is everybody's hero."
Piestewa's son, Brandon Whiterock, 9, and daughter Carla Piestewa, 8, are now being raised by Lori's parents, Terry and Priscilla "Percy" Piestewa.
Both said they feel honored to have their daughter recognized through the renaming of the mountain, however, they also said they want it to be clear that they do not feel the name only honors her.
"It is pretty exciting how they have continued to keep the name Piestewa Peak, however, we have always felt it represents all veterans," Terry Piestewa said. "It wouldn't be right if it just honored one person; we believe it is for everybody."
Since the Arizona naming board renamed the mountain, Percy Piestewa said numerous ceremonies to bless the peak have been held. She also said such ceremonies have been healing experiences that have brought people together as they have been attended by sympathetic members of the public as well as the families of other fallen soldiers.
Further, Percy Piestewa said members of Native American tribes throughout the country have attended the ceremonies and all profess Lori as one of their own.
"They claim her as one of her daughters," Percy Piestewa said. "Everyone is very proud of her."
The peculiarity of Lori's ability to unify people has led her parents to believe that perhaps everything that has passed was her calling in life.
"We all have a purpose, perhaps this was hers," Percy Piestewa said. "There is no other way to explain how she has brought people together."
Ernest Martinez, Chairperson of the Piestewa Memorial Committee and longtime friend of the Piestewa family, echoed Percy's sentiments. He said, through her actions, choice of friends, and by being from a culturally integrated family, which includes Hispanics, Hopis and Navajos, she has brought together people from all walks of life. In that sense, renaming the mountain after her is a fitting contribution toward creating a sense of peace.
Yet, Martinez, who accompanied Nuvamsa to Washington, D.C. and who has been an active advocate for the renaming of the mountain after Lori, said some people don't agree the name of the mountain should have been changed.
Martinez said critics argue that neither Lori, nor the Hopi, has ties to the Valley. Further, he said, they criticize the manner in which the state changed the name without waiting a customary five-year waiting period required to change the name of geographic landmarks.
Despite the criticism, Martinez said the board's decision sent a message that the previous name will no longer be tolerated.
Concerning this point, a press release from the Hopi Tribal Chairman's office stated that while the decision may not silence the critics who advocated the retention of the former name, the decision officially closes the door on the debate.