Hopis, Navajos Come Together in Support of Missing Soldier

Times Staff Writer

Against a cold wind blowing sand off a high-desert mesa, Native Americans marched here Friday in support of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq, and for the safe return of Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, a Hopi woman who is missing in action.

Piestewa’s plight caused some to reflect on the traditional warrior strengths of the Hopi Indians, who are supposed to fight only in self-defense.

Many took comfort that Piestewa, whose unit was ambushed Sunday, descended from the Bear clan, the traditional leaders of the Hopi people. Besides, her mother brags to friends, Piestewa is “one tough cookie.”

Piestewa, 22, was assigned to the 507th Maintenance Company out of Ft. Bliss, Texas. She was among 15 soldiers who, after making a wrong turn in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, were ambushed Sunday. The unit was on a supply mission.


Five soldiers were captured and questioned on Iraqi television; the Pentagon has confirmed the death of two others. The fate of the other eight, including Piestewa, remains unknown.

Anxiety for Piestewa has bridged the Hopi and Navajo people, whose governments have feuded -- first in combat, and now in court -- for 150 years over land.

Despite their political animosity, and differences in their religions and cultures, members of both Indian nations attended a community gathering and prayer meeting in Tuba City Wednesday night. The fact that leaders of both the Hopi and Navajo nations appeared together was described as remarkable by those in attendance.

On Friday, about 150 Hopis and Navajos walked side by side, in solidarity for Piestewa and the scores of other Native Americans from nearby towns -- Window Rock, Gap, Cameron, Kayenta -- who are facing combat in Iraq. The Hopis count at least 45 of their men and women serving overseas; about 70 local Navajos are in the Middle East.

Piestewa’s mother, Percy, marched with them, holding the hands of children as they sang “God Bless America.”

Percy and her husband, Terry Piestewa, work for the local school district. They have chosen not to speak to reporters about their daughter and have asked that the town pray not just for their daughter’s well-being, but for the safety of all the troops.

Outside the Piestewas’ double-wide mobile home, spokeswoman Myra Draper said Friday the family remains “very hopeful that Lori will be returning. They’re being very positive.”

The couple gathers strength from their Catholic faith, sustained by family prayers at 6 every night, she said. “Just as there was the ‘shock and awe’ of the bombing campaign, news of Lori was their ‘shock and awe,’ ” Draper said.


These days, the couple greets friends with big hugs at the front door. If the television is on, it’s probably Lori Piestewa’s two children watching cartoons, Draper said. Both Percy and Terry Piestewa are home this week because of spring break, and receive daily calls from the Army.

“They’re frustrated that they’re not getting information from the military, but the military probably doesn’t know anything either,” Draper said. “But how can they not be positive? They are overwhelmed by the outpouring of the community.”

The Hopi Indians enjoy a reputation of neither seeking battle nor shrinking from it. Their history tells of a people emerging from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, 65 miles to the west, and settling in the harsh high desert, farming without irrigation and producing their most valuable commodity, corn.

They have fought only against Spaniards attempting religious conversion and in defending their lands against Navajo intrusion, said tribal member Cliff Qotsaquahu, a student of Hopi history. They did not resist early American settlers. In modern times, Hopis sent men into war -- but generally in ways that avoided direct combat. A few Hopis served as code-talkers during World War II, but did not gain the fame of the larger numbers of Navajo who confounded the Japanese by passing battle messages in their native tongue.


“The Hopi warrior is not an aggressor,” said Qotsaquahu, who served in the Vietnam War. “He will not pursue, but you will have to deal with him if you threaten his home.”

“Killing is the No. 1 cardinal sin. Nobody has the right to take a life, unless the other person first crosses the line. That’s why it is so very, very difficult for Hopi soldiers serving in Iraq. They have very mixed feelings about killing.”

Some Hopis join the military out of patriotism to protect their homeland. Others seek adventure or to escape the reservation and its unemployment rate of about 50%.

Lori Piestewa, the youngest of four children, showed interest in the military as a teenager. Six years ago, she served as commanding officer of the Junior ROTC program at Tuba City High School, leading dozens of other students in drills and learning her military bearing.


After school, she married. She enlisted about 2 1/2 years ago, after getting divorced. She followed the military careers of her father, who served in Vietnam, and her grandfather, who fought in World War II.

Piestewa left for Kuwait in February and her parents are caring for her children, ages 4 and 3.

Piestewa’s role in the Army, said Qotsaquahu, was consistent with the tradition of a Hopi woman. “She would still be the keeper of the flame, a mother caring for her children. Working in a supply function would be an appropriate role for a Hopi woman.”

Tuba City, an impoverished town of about 8,000, 75 miles north of Flagstaff, is situated on the Navajo Reservation but home to dozens of Hopi Indians as well. Signs in windows offer messages of hope for Piestewa. “Pray for Lori’s safe return,” says one. “Lori, come home,” reads another. The wind buffets yellow ribbons tied to signposts and yellow balloons strung on fences.


Ron Milford said Piestewa was a role model for his son, Aaron.

“He had finished two years of college, but wasn’t sure where to go with his life,” Milford said. “He had gone to school with Lori, and one day when he ran into her, she told him of all the opportunities in the Army.”

Aaron enlisted, and is based at Ft. Lewis, Wash., training to become a medic.

Among Friday’s marchers, 16-year-old Chad Hatathlie said watching TV accounts of the war “is scary. It makes you just want to cry.”


“I didn’t know Lori,” he said. “But in Tuba City, we’re all one big family. We know she’ll be OK. We’re all praying for her, and we know that she’s strong.”