The successful effort by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to rename a Phoenix mountain after an American Indian woman killed in Iraq needn’t have turned into a nasty fight.
Gov. Napolitano wanted to honor an Arizona
citizen, Pfc. Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi Nation, because
she was the first American woman to die in the war.
to Republican state Rep. John Allen, "I think it sets the tone for
what her governorship is going to be like. It's going to be very
Clintonesque-style in the sense where you take advantage (of the
situation), no matter whose grief it is."
was cheered in Piestewa's hometown of Tuba City, on the Navajo
Nation, when she promised to rename Squaw Peak Mountain and Squaw
Freeway to Piestewa Mountain and Piestewa Freeway. However, many
business owners who use Squaw Peak in their name were peeved.
Tony Cordovana, who owns Squaw Peak Retirement, an
assisted-living facility, said he chose the name based on the peak
and won't be changing it. "I appreciate her serving, but I don't
appreciate them changing the name," he said. "It's been a part of
Arizona and Phoenix for such a long time."
Well, not for
that long, because this is not the first time the name of the
mountain has changed. In the early days of white settlement, the
mountain was called "Squaw Tit Peak." Anyone observing the profile
of the mountain against a blue sky will know where this name came
from. Several church organizations fought hard to get that hideous
name changed. Unfortunately, they did not go far enough.
There have been many definitions bandied about for the word
"squaw," and most indicate the name simply means "young woman." The
former head of the National Congress of American Indians, Suzanne
Harjo, was the first to say "squaw" is a word for female genitalia.
This, as far as anyone can determine, is false.
doesn't matter what the word "squaw" means. It is the history the
word contains even as it has transformed its meaning from over a
century ago. Any white man married to or living with an Indian
woman was known as a "squawman." When white men went looking for
sex, they went "squaw hunting."
Even if all of the white
people in Phoenix believe "Squaw Peak" is a fine name, if just one
Indian woman finds it offensive, then that’s reason enough to
change the name.
It amazes me that in the wake of the
renaming controversy, several white columnists wrote articles
intended to be humorous that lambasted those wishing to change the
name of Squaw Peak. They went through their own versions of the
word almost to the point of being offensive. Yet not one of these
columnists bothered to call an Indian woman and ask how she felt
about the word squaw.
The chairman of the Arizona
Geographic and Historic Names Board tried to block Napolitano's
idea. He cited a requirement that people must be dead five years
before their names can be attached to geographic features. The
governor found a way around his opposition: She asked the board to
waive the waiting period, on the ground that federal policies
prohibit the use of derogatory racial terms on landmarks.
Squaw -- slut. To most Indian women, the words are synonymous. But
don't take my word for it. Do as I have done, and ask an Indian
woman. What better source to get an honest answer?
would like to ask those business owners in Phoenix who include the
name Squaw Peak in the names of their businesses if they would have
done so had the name not been changed from Squaw Tit Peak. Perhaps
Pointe Hilton Squaw Tit Peak Resort might have a certain ring for
the owners, but I doubt it.
The original name was changed
because religious people decades ago found it to be offensive. The
present name was changed because it was intended to honor a
courageous Hopi Indian woman who gave her life in the defense of
I strongly commend Gov. Napolitano for
having had the courage to face down those who would deny an honor
to a great Indian woman because they preferred to stand on false
history. And for those who defend the use of the name "squaw" for
any reason: This is your chance to get over it.