A Piestewa Peak pilgrimage
And the steep uphill battle against harmful, antiquated names
Zig-zagging up the side of Piestewa Peak in January, a hiker’s eyes are left to scour an endless stretch of desert for a break from the monochromatic.
The sheer elevation over the surrounding Phoenix metro guarantees an indisputable beauty nonetheless. From the trailhead, Arizonans appear to traverse the terrain like ants on an anthill.
But the mountain’s history, unlike its winter color palette, is more complicated.
Throughout most of the 20th century and into the 21st, Piestewa Peak, also known as Vainom Do’ag by the Pima, instead carried a name considered derogatory to Native Americans.
It’s a name still used for more than 600 places across the country today, according to the Native American Rights Fund. Only in November was the term officially recognized as derogatory by the U.S. government.
But in 2003, the Phoenix mountain was reborn as Piestewa Peak, named after Lori Piestewa: documented as the first Native American woman to die in combat for the United States, and the first woman in the U.S. military to die in the Iraq War.
Piestewa, a Hopi woman from Arizona, died from her injuries following an ambush by Iraqi forces on March 23, 2003, just three days after President George Bush had declared war.
When considerations to move away from the mountain’s derogatory title came, Piestewa Peak and Swilling Peak were top contenders. Locals voiced their opinions, and the rest is history.
The decision was recognized federally in 2008 when the U.S. Geological Survey accepted the change.
Still, countless landmarks across the country cling to harmful names with a white-knuckled grip.
What’s being done?
In November, the Department of the Interior announced the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names, bringing together representatives of native and civil rights groups as well as historians and anthropologists.
Six of the 17 positions are reserved for tribal and Native members, Indianz reported. Nominations are now open.
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in history, in a November statement. “Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”
Studies have found that derogatory names for streets, landmarks and even professional sports teams can have negative psychological effects on members of the targeted group.
There are hundreds of name changes similar to Piestewa’s currently pending approval by the federal government, though Haaland’s department promises to accelerate the process.
Plenty of work remains, but every name counts.
“Native Americans are present in this city,” Hopi Chairman Chief of Staff Bruce Talawyma said in Indian Country Today after new signage honoring Piestewa was installed at the trailhead. “This is the icon for us — and for it to bring attention to Lori Piestewa is a big, big step in the right direction.”