Cheers for Arizona’s governor and a Hopi warrior

  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.

But 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."

Gov. Napolitano 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.

But it 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?

I 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 her country.

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.

Tim Giago is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an Oglala Lakota and the editor and publisher of the weekly Lakota Journal in Rapid City, South Dakota.