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Thursday, April 10

Mom, Hopi, hero: Piestewa an icon

By Billy House, Mark Shaffer | The Arizona Republic

Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa has become the nation's most recognizable Native American military icon since 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 her death in Iraq.

He flew to Denver on Wednesday so he could meet another retired military friend, drive nearly 500 miles to Piestewa's hometown of Tuba City, Ariz., 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 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.

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.

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.

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."

Gary Laderman, a professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, is inclined to believe interest in Piestewa will be long-lasting.

"It's hard to say," he 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."