This North Phoenix Street Is Finally Losing Its Derogatory Name

Photo by Matt York, Associated Press.

By Jessica Swarner

July 7, 2020

“The s-word continues to be one that is highly derogatory and of the sexual nature to American Indian women.” 

The city of Phoenix has begun the process to change the name of a road that uses a demeaning term for indigenous Native American women.

The council voted last week to change the name of Squaw Peak Drive, after Mayor Kate Gallego and Councilwoman Thelda Williams had written a letter to the city manager, calling it degrading. 

Patti Hibbeler, CEO of the Phoenix Indian Center, said “the s-word” is long overdue for removal.

“The s-word continues to be one that is highly derogatory and of the sexual nature to American Indian women, and one that continues to be used as a negative tool, as a weapon, to make us feel less than human,” Hibbeler said.

As Native Daily Network describes it, “Squaw was a settler word, not an indigenous word, and has since been used to disparage indigenous sisters for centuries.” 

The initiative to rename the road has been an ongoing issue for years.

Already Changed Once

The derogatory term was also the center of a long-running fight over the name of a popular Phoenix hiking spot. 

In 1998, a group proposed renaming Squaw Peak as Iron Mountain, but that was unanimously shot down. 

The name wasn’t changed until 2008, when it became Piestewa Peak in honor of Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. Military. 

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The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names had actually already renamed the peak in 2003 shortly after Piestewa died, but the federal board required a five-year wait after a proposed namesake dies before considering the change. 

Despite the time having passed, the decision was still a controversial one. 

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names received 1,300 calls about the name change, with about two-thirds in favor of Piestewa. 

What Happens Next

Some members of the public have also pushed back against the idea of changing the street name. Some residents complained they would have to change addresses on letterhead, bills and other important documents. 

But in 2017, Phoenix City Council approved a measure that would give the city the right to rename derogatory street names without residents’ consent.

Another street will soon have a new name, too––the Council also voted last week to change Robert E. Lee Street, named after the Confederate general. 

The city Planning and Development Department will now gather comment from the U.S. Postal Service and city departments like street transportation, police and fire. The department must also mail an official first notice to affected residents and property owners in the next three weeks.

There will be at least four virtual public comment meetings, two related to each street. The official move to change could get on the council’s agenda as early as October.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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