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A Hopi woman warrior is honored in Arizona

  America treats today’s soldiers with the kind of respect that Vietnam veterans could only dream about. Such nearly universal support -- even from those who opposed the war against Iraq -- shows how much the nation has learned from its mistakes.

Efforts to honor one fallen soldier from Arizona show a refreshing desire to right old wrongs and move into a new and better era. But in this case, historic mistakes may prove harder to overcome.

Renaming Phoenix's Squaw Peak for Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, a member of the Hopi tribe and mother of two young children, was a simple, honest expression of appreciation toward a soldier who is believed to be the first Native American woman to die in combat for her country.

The honor to a modern warrior was enhanced because it erased a name that Native Americans find offensive and replaced it with one that represents their contributions to the country whose blessings have not always been shared equally. The story could end happily there, with the music swelling and the crowd cheering.

The crowd did, in fact, cheer when Arizona's Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano joined 5,000 people at Piestewa's memorial service in Tuba City, Ariz., on April 12. The largely Native America gathering gave Napolitano a rousing ovation for vowing to oversee the name change.

A week later, Piestewa Peak was a reality.

But instead of taking her bow, Napolitano was apologizing for the "heavy hand" her deputy chief of staff, Mario Diaz, had used to try to sway the chairman of the state board that approves name changes. What Diaz did was telephone a high-ranking member of the Phoenix Police Department to put pressure on Tim Norton, a detective who also chairs the State Board of Geographic Names. Norton had refused to waive the requirement that somebody be dead for five years before his or her name could be placed on a landmark. Norton did not give in and was not present when the measure to change the name passed.

Both Napolitano and Diaz say the governor had no prior knowledge of Diaz's tactics. He was publicly chastised by Napolitano, who said Diaz’s "very heavy hand" was "not a way to deal with people that I sanction."

Napolitano's political opponents seized on the incident to attack her and deflected attention from Piestewa. The state’s conservatives, who have never gotten over the fact that Napolitano advised Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Senate confirmation hearings, saw this as the first exploitable mistake in her four-month-old administration.

GOP Rep. John Allen tagged her style as "Clintonesque." Her efforts on behalf of a Native American war hero were decried as political correctness and shameless pandering.

Some of this was predictable and would have occurred no matter how the name change had been accomplished. After all, Arizona’s Republican Legislature has ignored previous attempts to change the name of Squaw Peak, including a bill introduced earlier this year by a member of the Navajo tribe, Rep. Jack Jackson.

The deafness to Native American concerns about negative connotations of the word "squaw" is nothing new. Yet the idea of replacing "squaw" with a name that honored a war hero would have made it difficult for conservatives to criticize the change -- if it hadn’t been for Diaz. He made it possible to label Piestewa Peak as the misbegotten child of dirty politics.

That’s the real shame. And the real challenge.

The name change represents an opportunity to move beyond a historic relationship in which Native American views, beliefs and feelings were irrelevant. A past in which the dominant culture was all about domination.

Much as some like to cite etymological evidence to prove that "squaw" really doesn’t mean anything bad, the fact remains that Native Americans are offended by the name. That should be enough.

In a relationship based on mutual respect, that would be enough. The stubborn refusal to change the name simply because non-Indians can’t see the problem was an added insult.

By using the name of one fallen soldier as a symbol of a collective commitment to listen respectfully for a change, Arizona seized a remarkable opportunity. It showed that it is possible for a majority population to respect the feelings of minority residents -- even if the majority doesn’t yet understand those feelings. It showed we’ve learned something from the past.

Now, Arizona has to refuse to allow the shining symbol of that lesson -- Lori Ann Piestewa and the peak named in her honor -- to be tarnished or diminished.

Linda Valdez is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). An editorial writer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, she advocated changing the name of Squaw Peak to honor Lori Ann Piestewa.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].