Mom, Hopi, Hero: Piestewa an Icon
by Billy House and Mark Shaffer 
The Arizona Republic 
10 April 2003

She has become the nation's most recognizable Native American military icon since another Arizonan, Ira Hayes, helped raise the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima.

Just ask retired Army Col. Tom Spencer of Hampstead, N.C., about the impact of the death in Iraq of Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa.

He flew to Denver on Wednesday so he could meet another retired military friend, drive nearly 500 miles to Tuba City, attend a memorial service for Piestewa on Saturday and donate money to the scholarship fund for her two small children.

"It's important to pay our soldierly respects," Spencer said.

That is just one small aspect of the bigger story that has captured worldwide attention. Consider: 

  • A national memorial for women military veterans in Washington is seeking items of Piestewa's clothing for an exhibit.

  • Tens of thousands of dollars are flowing into memorial accounts bearing her name.

  • Newspaper articles and media requests from all over the world for interviews with her family and others who knew her continue daily.

  • Piestewa, 23, already has been the focus of spots on programs as varied as Hardball With Chris Matthews and Good Morning America. Dozens of other programs, from Inside Edition to the Oprah Winfrey Show, are pursuing interviews with family members. German- and  Spanish- language television stations also want to tell her story.

  • Rumors in Arizona and Washington, D.C., swirl about her, from talk that Piestewa already has been buried at Arlington National Cemetery to word that President Bush will visit her hometown of Tuba City. The family plans to bring Piestewa's body back to Arizona for  burial, and White House officials say the president has no such travel plans.

  • A move is afoot to rename Squaw Peak in Phoenix after Piestewa.

AP/El Paso Times 
Pfc. Lori Piestewa shares a 
moment with a fellow soldier
before being deployed from
Ft. Bliss, Texas in this 18
Feb 2003 photo.


Profile: Lori Piestewa 

The essential thing to understand about Lori Piestewa is that she grew up in a poor, iso- lated community where dreams often swirl just out of reach, like the fine red dust dancing across her homeland.

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Why Piestewa?

But why has Piestewa captured the world's imagination and become a focal point for national grieving over all lost soldiers?

She's believed to be the first Native American woman killed in combat in a foreign war.

She was a single mother with two small children, a boy, 4, and a girl, 3.

She has become a symbol of the danger for all women in the combat zone.

She came from the same environs that produced the famed Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, who have enjoyed a recent renaissance in the public spotlight because of last year's movie Windtalkers.

And, with the number of U.S. war dead in Iraq at just over 100, the media focus on the victims has been concentrated and intense, especially on those with unusual backgrounds like that of Piestewa.

"People want to have some way to respond to all of this tragedy. And Lori, being a single mother, a Native American -- in spite of everything she had to lose -- went off and did everything she could do," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., whose district includes the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona.

"Because she stands out as a little bit different, she gives us all someone with which to try to personify the losses we feel."

Others agree.

"The thing that strikes me about this is where there are massive amounts of casualties, it is very difficult to make that real. So, there's a tendency to pick one individual to focus on," said Linda Grant De Pauw, president of the Maryland-based Minerva Center, a non-profit educational foundation supporting the study of military women and women in war.

"Her story brings a number of things together: the Native American element, a woman in war, being a mother, and the current military action. All of those are brought into focus in an emotional way," De Pauw said.

Speed of information

To some degree, the nation's collective grieving over Piestewa is a product of the speed and reach of modern media, eager to dispense the news that she was the first woman known killed in the Iraqi war and possibly the nation's first Native American woman ever killed in combat.

"There's a sense of uniqueness around her and her death, and this is a way to honor that status," said Gary Laderman, a professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta and author of the new book, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in 20th Century America.

"Her story has both cultural and religious overtones. She's a Hopi, and the first woman of her kind, to die in combat. She's a trailblazer."

Eric Ehst, spokesman for the Phoenix/Scottsdale chapter of the National Organization for Women, said: "This is a woman who died for her country doing what she was supposed to be doing. She wasn't some innocent bystander. ...She was young, a single mother and capable."

Piestewa's story also enhances the status of all Native Americans, said Leo Chischilly, director of the Navajo office of Veterans Affairs.

"The Code Talkers alerted this country to the contributions of Native Americans in war," Chischilly said. "And even though we are all very sad about the death of Lori Piestewa, her death gives us a great deal of pride about ourselves."

Piestewa's iconization has emerged although her actual battlefield exploits remain largely unknown and certainly not extensive.

She and other members of the Army's 507th Maintenance Unit were ambushed in the first week of the war.

De Pauw said none of that matters.

"We want to think of real heroes. But real life just doesn't always present them," De Pauw said.

"In recent years, men who have been taken prisoners of war have been called heroes. You don't necessarily have to take out a machine-gun nest to be considered a hero."

And, De Pauw said, because she is dead, Piestewa never can fall short.

"Because (Pfc. Jessica Lynch, Piestewa's roommate who was rescued last week by special forces) is still alive, she can be flawed and can't be sanctified," De Pauw said. "Whereas, Piestewa is dead. She is never again going to say a wrong word."

Emory's Laderman is inclined to believe interest in Piestewa will be long-lasting.

"It's hard to say," Laderman said. "But her ethnic-religious status as a marker of identity likely makes this something that will not just disappear. I imagine her name on mountains, streets and other kinds or forms of memorializations that will keep her in mind."

Reach the reporters at or 1-202-906-8136 and or 1-602- 444-8057.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.