The tangled messages of a servicewoman killed in combat

  I live among the remote mesas, canyons and scattered towns and villages of the Hopi and Navajo reservations in northeast Arizona. A desolate and foreboding place by conventional standards, it’s a quiet, starkly beautiful land to the people who have called it home for centuries.

But it is, by anyone’s reckoning, far removed from the bustle of mainstream America, and for a few days after the first bombs fell in Baghdad, it was easy to forget the country was at war. No anti-war protesters blocked intersections; no pro-troops supporters clogged the airwaves. People went about their daily routines, seemingly far removed from the battles being waged thousands of miles away in another ancient desert.

But on March 23, the ambush of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company near al-Nasiriyah proved that no community is immune from the horrors of war, not even the oft-forgotten Hopi and Navajo people.

Eight members of the 507th were declared missing in action. Twelve days later, Jessica Lynch, a young woman from Lebanon, W.V., was rescued from an Iraqi hospital. The other seven, including Lori Piestewa, a Hopi woman from the predominantly Navajo town of Tuba City, were pronounced dead three days later. Piestewa, 23 years old and a single mother of two, is believed to be the first Native American servicewoman ever killed in combat.

Loss of a daughter

A tragedy like this hits any community hard, but I can’t imagine it devastating any place more profoundly than the Hopi Reservation. It’s an incredibly tight-knit place, bound together by a complex maze of familial and clan relationships.

"I swear all our people were mourning, crying," says Eileen Garcia, the governor of the Hopi village of Upper Moenkopi, where Piestewa was buried. The villages of Upper and Lower Moenkopi sit in a valley just southeast of Tuba City, settled by Hopi farmers, who for centuries have tilled the red, dusty soil for corn, squash and beans. "It’s been hard on everybody — we’re all related somehow. We lost a good daughter."

Piestewa’s death has also been keenly felt in Tuba City, where she grew up and went to high school. A big city by reservation standards, the community boasts 8,500 residents, a mixture of Hopi and Navajo. Neighbors for hundreds of years, the two tribes have long been locked in a bitter land dispute. Despite the tribes’ political differences, Hopi and Navajo coexist peacefully in Tuba City. They go to school together, work in the same offices, marry one another, raise children together.

"To me, Lori Piestewa represents bravery, not just to the Hopi tribe, but to Indian nations and to the indigenous people that she represents," says Tuba City resident Mary Worker, her voice choking. "And although I’m Navajo, I would be honored to tell my children who this woman is and how she has represented us."

While Piestewa’s death has temporarily eased political tensions between the tribes, it’s also highlighted a cultural dilemma faced by many Hopi soldiers — how to balance Hopi people’s traditional pacifism with an equally strong tradition of defending their homeland.

The Hopi are one of the few tribes to never initiate war. Open any guidebook to the Southwest and you’ll see them described as the "people of peace." In World War II, a dozen Hopi men spent up to nine years in prison for refusing to fight because of their cultural beliefs. Nearly 30 Hopi men were granted conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War.

But like many Native American families, the Piestewas boast a long history of military service. Lori’s father is a Vietnam veteran, and her grandfather fought in World War II. Native Americans historically have enlisted in the military in very high numbers; today, there are nearly 13,000 serving.

"For me, it’s kind of like an Indian thing to do," explains Hopi war veteran Clifford Qotsakuahu; he was drafted to go to Vietnam in 1966, but had planned to enlist anyway. "Not necessarily to go out and fight for the U.S. government — that would come secondary — but to protect my country, Indian country, and to protect my people."

So the war on Iraq presents a dilemma, says Leigh Kuwanwiswma, who directs the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. "The Hopi people, who generally do not see any real honor in war, are trying to rationalize Hopi participation, of which there are many in the current Iraqi war."

A mixed message

It’s unclear exactly what motivated Lori Piestewa to join the army nearly three years ago. Many young Indian people are influenced by older relatives — Piestewa was likely encouraged to continue the family’s legacy. She cut her teeth as a four-year member of Junior ROTC at Tuba City High School.

But it was also a matter of economics. Lori’s friends say she enlisted, at least in part, to provide for her two young children, ages 3 and 4. Indeed, there were few options for her in Tuba City. Unemployment hovers around 50 percent on both the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Many young people long to leave the rez, but often find life in non-Indian cities too hectic. So the military can be an attractive escape.

Whatever her reasons, as the first Indian woman to die in combat, Lori Piestewa has become an icon to Native Americans around the country. And her legacy promises to be long-lived. Squaw Peak, a prominent landmark in Phoenix, has been rechristened Piestewa Peak. Indian people in the Four Corners, say at long last, Native Americans are beginning to get some recognition for the sacrifices they have made for their country.

The lessons of Piestewa’s death, like the bonds that hold these ancient communities together, are tangled and complex. But for at least one Hopi youngster, Hopi High School senior Anthony Puhuyesva, the message is crystal-clear. A cadet major in the school’s Junior ROTC program, Puhuyesva is preparing to leave for Army boot camp on August 21.

Piestewa’s death, he says, "makes me want to go even more, to pay my respects to Lori, to be as good as she was, and to defend my nation."

Daniel Kraker is a reporter for Arizona Public Radio and lives on the Hopi Reservation.