Piestewa Peak in Phoenix, Arizona: Part 1, The Name Controversy

Squaw Peak in the 1970s

Squaw Peak in the 1970s. Source: Phoenix, Arizona Historical Images

For my first series of posts about my travels and adventures, I believe the most appropriate place to begin is my home of Arizona. I first moved to the desert southwest when I was 13. Prior to Arizona, I had spent my earliest years in a Chicago suburb, so the dry climate, cactus, and often cloudless blue skies of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert were a drastic change to what I was accustomed to when my family and I first visited Phoenix. Of all the major differences that were immediately apparent, the mountains were the most pronounced. After spending my childhood among the flat landscape and numerous cornfields of northern Illinois, Phoenix’s mountains, scattered among the city’s buildings and lining the horizon, stood in stark contrast. I soon developed a love of hiking and the trail to the summit of Piestewa Peak is one of many that I have frequented over the years.

Surrounded by a sprawling metropolis of nearly 4.5 million people, the Phoenix Mountains rise beside the businesses and homes that cling to their outer edges.1 The surface streets meander around the mountain slopes, forced to curve and turn outside their otherwise rigid grid. Located in the Sonoran Desert in central Arizona, Phoenix is now the 6th most populous city in the United States.2 Known as the “Valley of the Sun,” the metropolitan area’s population ranks 12th in the nation and consists of a mass of several seamlessly interlocking cities.3 The Phoenix Mountains Preserve, located just a few miles north and northeast of downtown Phoenix, protects large patches of unique desert plant and animal life amidst the urban growth. Arizona State Route 51, a major north-south traffic corridor, winds its way through the center of this preserve. From the south, the curiously shaped Camelback Mountain claims most of the attention, as well as the title of the city’s highest peak at 2,706 feet (825 meters).4 Just a short drive further, Piestewa Peak, Camelback’s neighboring mountain to the north, comes into view.

At an elevation of 2,610 feet (796 meters), Piestewa Peak ranks as the third tallest point in Phoenix after Camelback and South Mountain.5 Route 51 is also known as the Piestewa Freeway, taking its alternative designation from the peak beside it. The mountain only gained its current name relatively recently, however, and many still know it by its former title of Squaw Peak.

Early Names
1902 survey map

The portion of the 1902-1903 survey map showing “Squaw Peak” written in pencil by Dr. Omar Turney. Source: General Land Office Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior

In 1868, less than a year after the tiny settlement of Phoenix was started, the General Land Office produced a map that identified what are now the Phoenix Mountains as “Barren Mountains Unfit for Cultivation.”6 As the first settlers of Phoenix arrived, the male prospectors, cowboys and pioneering farmers unofficially called the mountain just north of Camelback, “Squaw Tit Peak.”7 From an adequate distance and the right angle, looking at the shape of the landmark against a blue sky, one can see from where their inspiration probably arrived. As the city grew, “respectable folks” referred to it as “Phoenix Peak” instead.8 Church organizations argued against the use of the lewd name of Squaw Tit Peak, dropping the word “tit” and making the mountain “Squaw Peak” by the first years of the twentieth century.9 The name Squaw Peak appears on a General Land Office map from a 1902-03 survey.10 Dr. Omar Asa Turney (1866-1929), Phoenix’s first city engineer, was a surveyor on that expedition and claimed to have named the peak.11 The word squaw was not deemed offensive by most of the European American and Mexican inhabitants of Phoenix at the time and many today still do not realize or acknowledge the word’s degrading insinuations.

The name “Squaw Peak” and its association with female anatomy was not isolated to Arizona. A number of other mountains around the world have been crudely named for their shape’s resemblance to female breasts such as Squaw’s Tit in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, Cerro Las Tetas in Puerto Rico, and “The Breasts of Aphrodite” in Mykonos, Greece. During World War II there was an American B-24 Bomber called “Squaw Peak” by its crew. The bomber was decorated with nose art of a Native American woman lying on her back with her breasts and bent knee forming the central peaks of a mountain range. The explicit artwork on the bomber can be seen in period photographs here.
What does “squaw” mean?

The word squaw has been alleged by some to derive from a similar word in the Mohawk language meaning “female genitalia,” but no evidence that it came to English from that language exists. The word’s actual origin is from Massachusett, a Native American language from the Algonquian family.12 New England colonists first recorded the word in English language documents in 1622, before they were even in contact with the Mohawk, further indicating its Massachusett origin.13 In Massachusett, the word “skwa” translates to “young woman.”14 Most languages from the Algonquian family share a cognate of the word.15

This photograph from eastern Arizona was taken in 1873. It was labeled by the photographer, Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), as an “Apache Squaw and child.” The use of the word squaw in this context was not necessarily intended as derogatory, but the term did sometimes carry a negative association. Source: Library of Congress

This photograph from eastern Arizona was taken in 1873. It was labeled by the photographer, Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), as an “Apache Squaw and child.” Source: Library of Congress

“Squaw” was adopted into English in the seventeenth century as a loan word used to describe Native American women. It was a way to differentiate white women from Native American women, who were seen by many European Americans as biologically inferior at the time and also part of a different culture.16 This in itself may be seen as offensive today, but must be understood within the historical context of the time. Many who treated Native Americans respectfully, including other Algonquian Native Americans themselves, referred to native women during the colonial period as “squaws” without intending it to be degrading in any way. Although not originally used offensively, over time the word squaw became more pejorative as it was carried west and outside its original New England context. By the early nineteenth century it was sometimes used with a negative connotation, labeling a Native American woman as ugly or sexually promiscuous.17 Arguments that the word “squaw” originated from a different word meaning “female genitalia” gained popularity with activists in the 1970s and the decades after.18 Many Native Americans sincerely believe this now and refer to squaw as the “s-word” or write it as a swear word with asterisks or other characters, such as “sq***.”19 Journalists and other writers continue to repeat this story as well even though historians and linguists have categorically shown that the word originates from a term simply meaning “young woman.”20 Regardless of its original meaning, the word squaw has undoubtedly evolved into a derogatory term.21 It is widely acknowledged by Native Americans from several different tribes and cultures to be a term synonymous with offensive words like “bitch” or “slut.”22 Because of this, efforts to remove it from place names such as Phoenix’s Squaw Peak do have legitimacy.

The Controversy
A 1960s postcard showing downtown Phoenix with Squaw Peak labeled in the background to the left.

A 1960s postcard showing downtown Phoenix with Squaw Peak labeled in the background.

Attempts to change the name of Squaw Peak began decades ago with repeated failure. In the 1990s, a Native American congressman in the Arizona House of Representatives submitted a bill to change the name several times that initiated heated debates.23 In 1997, a Native American youth group filed a petition with the Arizona Board of Geographic and Historic Names to change Squaw Peak’s name to Iron Mountain, a translation of the O’odham language name of “Vainom Do’ag.”24 The Akimel O’odham (Pima) Native American people inhabited the area that is now Maricopa County for hundreds of years before Phoenix was founded in the late nineteenth century. There is no known historical evidence as to what the Pima called Piestewa Peak, but the group that proposed the name argued that “Vainom Do’ag” was passed down in oral tradition. Ethnohistorian Donald Bahr, an authority on the Pima people, coauthored a book with two Pima elders, Lloyd Paul and Vincent Joseph, in which they state that “Vainom Do’ag” is not the traditional name of Squaw Peak, but that of another mountain a few miles away.25 They knew no O’odham name for the mountain called Squaw Peak. Despite this, most writers still incorrectly refer to this as Piestewa Peak’s historic name. After several months of public discussion, the state board met in July 1998 and decided against the proposal to change Squaw Peak’s name, citing the fact that there was doubt whether the peak called Iron Mountain by the Pima was the same as Squaw Peak.26 The board’s chairman, Phoenix Police Officer Tim Norton, had considered the proposal before the doubts were brought up because it was originally believed the Iron Mountain name had a longstanding association with the peak. Norton had declined proposals to rename the mountain after Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who had died just two months before in May 1998.27 There was a rule implementing a waiting period of five years after a person’s death before a geographic feature could be renamed for them that prevented this.

Lori Piestewa on February 18, 2003 before being deployed.

Lori Piestewa on February 18, 2003 before being deployed. Photo: U.S. Army

The issue of renaming the mountain came up again in 2003. Newly elected Governor Janet Napolitano petitioned to have the peak renamed for Lori Piestewa (1979-2003), the first Native American woman to die in combat on foreign soil. Piestewa was a member of the Hopi tribe of northeastern Arizona, her father a Hopi Native American and her mother Mexican-American. Her paternal grandfather had fought in the European theatre of World War II and her father served in the Vietnam War.28 Lori Piestewa took part in the opening days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, a unit made up of clerks and repair personnel.29 On March 23, 2003, just three days into the invasion, Piestewa’s Humvee was part of a convoy traveling through the desert in southern Iraq when she and her fellow soldiers came under heavy fire. A rocket-propelled grenade struck the vehicle, causing an explosion that pushed the Humvee into the rear of a disabled tractor-trailer. Three soldiers died in the vehicle, while Piestewa, Shoshana Johnson, and Jessica Lynch survived and were taken prisoner. Piestewa was wounded in the head and succumbed to her injuries soon after.30 The incident would make Jessica Lynch famous after media reported on her rescue by U.S. Special Forces on April 1. Labeled a heroine, Lynch insisted she was just a survivor and that the 23 year old Piestewa was the real heroine.31 Piestewa’s death prompted a rare gathering between members of the neighboring Hopi and Navajo nations in Arizona, the two tribes having a centuries-old rivalry between them.32

When Governor Napolitano lobbied in April 2003 to have Squaw Peak renamed in Piestewa’s honor, controversy arose once again. The required waiting period of five years after a person’s death before a geographic feature can be renamed in their honor still stood and Piestewa had been killed less than a month ago. The Arizona State Board of Geographic and Historic Names refused to consider the petition because of the five year state and federal guidelines that it violated. Napolitano refuted by stating the board had to consider her petition by law and that she would request the board’s chairman, Tim Norton, to resign if he would not agree to receive it.33 It’s worth recalling that Norton had also been the board’s chairman in 1998 when he had rejected the proposals to rename the mountain after Senator Barry Goldwater for the same reason – it had been less than five years since Goldwater’s death at the time. It was then discovered that Napolitano’s chief of staff, Mario Diaz, had called one of Norton’s supervisors at the Phoenix Police Department to try to pressure Norton into allowing the name change.34 Napolitano did not condone Diaz’s actions, but all of this together portrayed the new governor as having bullied the board.35 The board met days later with Norton and another member absent in protest. The members who were present voted 5-1 in favor of the new name of Piestewa Peak.36 The name of Squaw Peak Parkway for the Arizona 51 was soon changed to Piestewa Freeway by the Arizona Department of Transportation as well.

An old sign for Squaw Peak Parkway (Arizona State Route 51). Construction on the highway began in 1986 and it was renamed Piestewa Freeway in May 2003. Image Source.

An old sign for Squaw Peak Parkway (Arizona State Route 51). Construction on the highway began in 1986 and it was renamed Piestewa Freeway in May 2003. Source: Arizona Roads

Several Phoenix residents were upset over what they believed was a hasty name change and opposed removing the name of Squaw Peak, arguing that it was the historic name of the mountain. Jane H. Hill, an anthropologist and linguist of Native American languages from the University of Arizona studied the Squaw Peak debate at length, analyzing citizen responses in 2003 and 2004 on online message boards created by the Arizona Republic on the topic. Contributors were overwhelmingly against the name change even though several Native American woman posted to explain how squaw was seen in their cultures as a clearly derogatory term. Some argued that the Hopi, the tribe Lori Piestewa was a member of, resided nearly 200 miles away from the peak and that the Phoenix area was associated with the Pima and therefore the mountain should be named in association with them. Hill provides specific examples of arguments that citizens made for or against the name change and discusses the subject at length in her informative book titled The Everyday Language of White Racism.37

After the peak’s name was officially changed in Arizona, the federal U.S. Board on Geographic Names refused to accept the petition at the time, citing the five year waiting rule. Additional proposals were made for alternative names, such as naming the mountain Swilling Peak after Confederate veteran Jack Swilling who was an early founder of Phoenix in the 1860s.38 The national board eventually voted to approve the name change to Piestewa Peak on the federal level in 2008, officially changing the name on maps and publications, but adding the caveat that the name of Squaw Peak could still be used as a secondary reference.39

Squaw Peak Drive street sign in February 2016. A smaller mountain ridge adjacent to Piestewa Peak is seen in the background.

Squaw Peak Drive street sign in February 2016. A smaller mountain ridge adjacent to Piestewa Peak is seen in the background.

Today, there are still several local businesses in the area of Piestewa Peak that continue to use the name Squaw Peak in their name. The historic Squaw Peak Inn, built in 1937, still retains the name, as does the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, opened in 1977 just to the west of the peak. U.S. President Barack Obama stayed at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in 2015, briefly reigniting calls for Hilton to change the name. Some denounced Obama’s stay there, calling him hypocritical after he had just spoken out against the name of the NFL team, the Washington Redskins, a few months earlier.40 Many Arizonans still use the name Squaw Peak to refer to the mountain, while others condemn its use at all. In a June 2003 article, written during the immediate aftermath of the name change, Tim Giago supported the new name and wondered if business owners who retained Squaw Peak in the names of their businesses would have done the same had the mountain’s title not been changed from the even earlier version. He mused, “Perhaps Point Hilton Squaw Tit Peak Resort might have a certain ring for the owners, but I doubt it.”41 Interestingly enough, the road that visitors drive into to access the park to hike the peak is still called “Squaw Peak Drive.” Changing the name of the street would involve the Phoenix City Council rather than the state legislature.42 A future proposal to change the name may illicit heated debate once again.

As for myself, I can understand both sides to the naming disagreement, but do favor the new name. I think renaming the mountain to Piestewa Peak honors a military veteran in a very lasting and respectable way. Of course, many alternative names could have been considered as well to honor the Pima community or some other aspect of Arizona’s heritage. Napolitano’s rushed and undiplomatic method in changing the name in 2003 certainly could have been handled better for an issue that did not require such urgency or divisiveness. Her initiative to begin the process can be commended though, especially after the removal of squaw from the name had been thwarted so many times in previous decades. The term squaw, although not originally an offensive word centuries ago, has clearly developed into a derogatory term over the last two hundred years and considerations to remove it elsewhere should continue. At the same time, many Phoenix residents and visitors are ignorant that it holds such a negative implication and the businesses or brands that do retain the name do so more out of maintaining their traditional titles than intentionally invoking an insulting term.

In the past, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has made widespread alterations to names with words considered offensive. In the 1960s and 1970s, several places with the word “nigger” were changed to “negro” and places with the word “Jap” were changed to “Japanese.”43 Now, the word “negro,” which was deemed an acceptable replacement by the board 50 years ago, is offensive as well because of the evolving nature of our vocabulary. Squaw can still be found in the names of at least 828 different locations across the United States.44 There is even another Squaw Peak in Arizona located near Camp Verde in Yavapai County. Should action be taken to change these names? Do you believe renaming Squaw Peak in Phoenix to Piestewa Peak was a positive alteration or that the old name should have remained? Join the discussion by leaving a comment below and/or indicate your opinion by voting in the poll.

Continue reading about Piestewa Peak’s Summit Trail in “Part 2, The Hike to the Summit.”

Suggested Reading:
The Everyday Language of White Racism (2008) by Jane H. Hill
An anthropologist from the University of Arizona, Hill studies the controversy surrounding the changing of Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak in detail. Of particular interest is her analysis of comments by citizens contributed to The Arizona Republic’s online message boards on the subject at the height of the debate in 2003 and 2004.
"Reclaiming the Word 'Squaw' in the Name of the Ancestors" (1999) by Margaret Bruchac
Bruchac is an anthropologist and historian of Abenaki heritage who specializes in Native American Studies. In this article she explains how the word "squaw" was not always a derogatory word as it is viewed today. She explains how many place names with the word squaw were named as such as a sign of respect or to honor the women associated with those locales. In her words: "Many 'squaw' place names recognize ancient places where women did traditional activities. Without a very good understanding of history, it is a mistake to erase the lives, stories, and voices of the women whose presence was acknowledged by the original naming." She further states that "Rather than twist history by insisting that the word has always been an insult, we need to understand how indigenous cultures, histories, and languages have been misrepresented."

Show 44 footnotes

  1.   Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2014, Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas, United States Census Bureau (USCB), Population Division.
  2.  Phoenix, Arizona 2014 population estimate, USCB, Population Estimates Program. Also see “1 Million Milestone,” USCB.
  3.  Annual Estimates…, USCB.
  4.  National Geodetic Survey (NGS) Data Sheet for Camels Back 2, Permanent Identifier (PID) DU2216.
  5.  NGS Data Sheet for Squaw Peak Reset, PID DV2012; John Stanley, “‘Seven Summits’ of Phoenix,” AZCentral.com, 16 June 2006.
  6.  Sherman Day, Survey Map, 31 December 1868, General Land Office Records, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), United States Department of the Interior (DOI).
  7. Detail Report for Piestewa Peak, Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), United States Board on Geographic Names, ID 11741.
  8.  Michael Kiefer, “Taking a peek back: Colorful historical facts,” The Arizona Republic, 17 May 2003.
  9.  Jack San Felice, Squaw Peak: A Hiker’s Guide, (Higley, AZ: Millsite Canyon Publishing, 1997), 1; Sheriff Magazine (of Arizona), October 1958; Tim Giago, “Cheers for Arizona’s governor and a Hopi warrior,” High Country News, 2 June 2003.
  10.  H.F. Robinson, East Gila and Salt River, Meridian, Arizona Plat Map, Survey conducted 23 July 1902 to 30 April 1903, General Land Office Records, Bureau of Land Management, BLM, DOI; The second half of this map, showing Camelback Mountain, can be seen here.
  11.  Kiefer, “Taking a peek…”
  12.  Jane H. Hill, “Massachusett ‘skwa’ and American English ‘squaw’: The history of a slur” in The Everyday Language of White Racism (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
  13.  William Bradford and Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation, (London, 1622).
  14. Hill, “Massachusett…”; Ives Goddard, “The True History of the Word Squaw,” News from Indian Country, April 1997.
  15.  Ibid.
  16.  Hill, “Massachusett…
  17.  Ibid.
  18.  Vincent Schilling, “The Word ‘Squaw’ Offensive or Not?Indian Country, 31 January 2014.
  19.  Jane H. Hill, “Is ‘squaw’ a slur? The Arizona Republic debate and the folk theory of racism” in The Everyday Language of White Racism (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
  20.  Goddard, “The True History…”; Marge Bruchac, “Reclaiming the Word ‘Squaw’ in the Name of the Ancestors,” (Northampton, MA: 1999).
  21.  Ibid.
  22.  Hill, “Is ‘squaw’ a slur?…
  23.  William Bright, “The Sociolinguistics of the ‘S-Word’: ‘Squaw’ in American Placenames,” 2000.
  24.  Jane H. Hill, “Changing ‘Squaw Peak’ to ‘Piestewa Peak’” in The Everyday Language of White Racism (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008); Piestewa Peak, GNIS.
  25.  Donald Bahr, Lloyd Paul, and Vincent Joseph, Ants and Orioles: Showing the Art of Pima Poetry (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997).
  26.  Bright, “The Sociolinguistics…”
  27.  “Phoenix’s Squaw Peak may get its original name back,” Tucson Citizen, 8 July 1998.
  28.  Gary Younge, “What about Private Lori?The Guardian, 9 April 2003.
  29.  Ibid.
  30.  Osha Gray Davidson, “The Forgotten Soldier: The unsung heroine of the Jessica Lynch ambush in Iraq,” Rolling Stone, 3 June 2004.
  31.  Ibid.
  32.  Younge, “What about…”
  33.  Nena Baker, “Arizona battle over Squaw Peak grows, Official refuses governor’s plea to rename site,” Deseret News, 13 April 2003.
  34.  Mark Shaffer, “Controversy stirs questions over naming of peak,” Indian Country, 28 April 2003.
  35.  Ibid.
  36.  Hill, “Changing ‘Squaw Peak’…
  37.  Hill, “Is ‘squaw’ a slur?…
  38.  Connie Cone Sexton, “Will feds pick ‘Piestewa Peak’?The Arizona Republic, 31 March 2008; Piestewa Peak, GNIS.
  39.  Connie Cone Sexton, “Sqaw Peak officially Piestewa Peak,” The Arizona Republic, 10 April 2008.
  40.  Paul Giblin, “Obama’s visit reignites ‘Squaw Peak’ controversy,” AZCentral.com, 7 January 2015.
  41.  Giago, “Cheers for Arizona’s governor…”
  42.  Dustin Gardiner, “Phoenix debates use of ‘squaw’ in street names,” The Arizona Republic, 16 July 2014.
  43.  Bright, “The Sociolinguistics…”
  44.  Jennings Brown and Tal Reznik, “Racial Slurs Are Woven Deep Into the American Landscape,” Vocativ, 29 October 2015.