PHOENIX — The State Board on Geographic and Historic Names voted Thursday to put the name of Spc. Lori Piestewa on a mountain in Phoenix.
Backers of the proposal said it was "the right thing to do" to remove the derogatory term Squaw Peak from the hill and replace it to honor the Hopi who was the first Native American woman killed in combat.
Martin Pasqualetti, an Arizona State University geography professor who serves on the nine-member panel, said this case merited the board ignoring its own policy not to rename geographic features until after someone has been dead for at least five years.
But the move pushed by Gov. Janet Napolitano, coming after more than three hours of testimony and debate, could actually prove more confusing.
That's because the state board's 5-1 vote only affects maps and documents produced by the state.
Actually changing federal maps — and commercial maps that rely on the U.S. Geological Survey — requires the concurrence of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. And even Tim Nelson, the governor's legal counsel, acknowledged that convincing the national board to follow suit could prove more formidable.
One state board member suggested it might even be impossible. In fact, Lloyd Clark, representing the Arizona Historical Society, said the only reason the governor's request got such expedited approval was because four board members actually work for agencies whose department heads serve at the pleasure of the governor.
Board members also voted 5-1 to rename the Squaw Peak Parkway that runs adjacent to the mountain as Lori Piestewa Freeway. While that move does not require federal concurrence it does need approval by the state Transportation Board, which meets next month.
The controversy also resulted in the resignation of Richard Pinkerton, who has served on the board since it was formed 19 years ago. Pinkerton said in a letter to the board there had been pressures "affecting its autonomy and integrity."
"The board was created as a state board not subject to the governor's beck and call," Pinkerton wrote, a reference to the fact that Napolitano asked for the resignation of Chairman Tim Norton after he told her staff that he would not consider a name change this soon after Piestewa's death. Pinkerton said there was internal pressure from other board members that he should "prostitute my integrity in the interest of satisfying a certain political venue."
Clark, who cast the lone dissenting vote — Norton, whom Napolitano is powerless to fire, was absent — said the board was responding to "political opportunism" by the governor.
Nelson, making Napolitano's case for her to the board, said there is no question that the word "squaw" is offensive. He pointed out that the board itself reached that conclusion twice before but rejected proposed name changes because the proposed alternatives — Iron Mountain and, later, Phoenix Peak — had no historical precedent.
All that left, Nelson said, is a suitable substitute to come along.
"I submit that the best answer has come to us in just the last three weeks," he said.
The change drew a parade of supporters, both elected and lay. It also had the strong backing of Caleb H. Johnson, a retired Army colonel and chaplain from the Hopi reservation, who told board members they should ignore the five-year policy to rid the mountain of the name "squaw."
"It's only right that that name be replaced by another female name," he said.
Jesse Thompson, a member of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors agreed. "The renaming of Squaw Peak is appropriate, the renaming of Squaw Peak is righteous, the renaming of Squaw Peak is inevitable," he said.
Others, however, said the five-year policy is in place for a reason. "Lori's death should not be part of an emotional move to discard the rule of law," Phoenix resident Don Ascoli said.
He also pointed out that policy has so far prevented any geographic feature from being renamed after former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, who died in May 1998.
"Do any of you on this board hold the name Lori Piestewa above the name Barry Goldwater?" he asked. "If you waive the five-year rule, you are. And that's offensive to me and will be offensive to thousands of Arizonans."
The proposal has proven controversial.
GladysAnn Wells, the state librarian and also a member of the board, said e-mail messages at the office as of mid-afternoon were running 98 in favor and 279 against. But Pasqualetti said letters to the editor in a Phoenix newspaper were running 58-34 in favor.
— Arizona Daily Sun