PHOENIX — The U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted Thursday to officially change the name of a prominent Phoenix mountain to Piestewa Peak to honor the first American Indian woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.
The 11 board members who voted for the name change felt that Army Spc. Lori Piestewa symbolizes everyone who has died in the line of duty, Lou Yost, the board’s executive secretary, said from Washington, D.C.
He said the two members who voted against the change argued that Piestewa didn’t have a direct association with the mountain and is not of regional or national prominence.
The craggy desert mountain used to be named Squaw Peak, a controversial name that many American Indians find offensive and have been trying to change for years.
The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names renamed the mountain soon after Piestewa was killed in Iraq in 2003. But the federal board requires a five-year wait before it considers changing the name of geographic feature on maps and other federal publications after the dead — in part to allow those arguing passionately for or against a name change to cool down.
Yost said those five years didn’t do much to cool down hundreds of Arizonans.
He said the board received an unprecedented 1,300 calls, e-mails and letters about the name change, with about two-thirds in favor of Piestewa Peak.
“The board has a five-year waiting period so everyone’s emotions even out after someone’s death, but apparently this is still an emotional situation out there,” he said. “This is what we call a high-profile case.”
Piestewa, a 23-year-old Hispanic-Hopi mother of two from Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation, died after her convoy took a wrong turn and was ambushed near Nasiriyah in March 2003. Some of the members of 507th Maintenance Company, including her best friend Jessica Lynch, were taken prisoner; others died.
The story of Lynch’s capture and dramatic nighttime rescue made her an instant celebrity. Lynch attends annual ceremonies at Piestewa Peak in honor of her fallen friend and named her daughter after Piestewa.
The peak is a popular destination for local hikers attracted to its convenient location in the middle of the city and its challenging trails to the 2,600-foot summit. Others like to go hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking on some of the easier trails in the foothills.
The controversy over renaming the mountain led to a nasty fight between Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano and the Republican-led Legislature.
Napolitano argued that changing the name of the landmark would be an appropriate tribute to Piestewa while removing the word “squaw.” Although some linguists disagree, critics say “squaw” is derived from an Indian word for female genitalia.
Lawmakers argued that Napolitano used Piestewa’s death to her political advantage and that her staff used heavy-handed tactics to rename the peak.
Larry Wayt, the leader of a local hiking group who runs the squawpeakhiker.org Web site, said he was disappointed in the federal board’s decision to rename the peak.
“A lot of words are considered offensive now that didn’t used to be considered offensive, and a lot of the words that are considered offensive are still used, and that really doesn’t enter into it as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Wayt, who served in the Coast Guard for 22 years before retiring in 1977, said the board should have left the name the same, or had it changed in honor of all veterans.
Napolitano spokeswoman Shilo Mitchell said Piestewa symbolizes all the men and women who have sacrificed for Arizona, and that the governor was pleased with the board’s decision.
“This was certainly the hoped-for outcome, not just for her, but for many Arizonans,” Mitchell said. “Lori Piestewa bravely served our country. She sacrificed greatly, and so has her family, and by honoring her, we honor all veterans.”