A gentle wind out of the west blows low across a high desert landscape of rabbit brush, yucca and rolling tumbleweed in a far corner of the Hopi Reservation, located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, in northeastern Arizona.
At the site of a simple, rock-piled grave, two children place bright, new plastic flowers and tiny American flags. Buried there is Army Spc. Lori Ann Piestewa. Lori, who died at the age of 23 on March 23, 2003, on the fourth day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military on foreign soil. And Lori was their mother.
As Brandon Whiterock, 10, and Carla Piestewa, 8, scatter sacred white cornmeal (homa) on Lori’s grave, they say private prayers under the loving eyes of their grandparents, Terry and Priscilla (“Percy”) Piestewa, who have cared for the children since their mother’s death.
“We give the homa into the grave so they can live a good afterlife,” says Brandon, whose Hopi name is Sus-wu-pa (“the tallest bamboo”).
Praying with the sacred homa is a daily part of the children’s lives.
“They greet the sun and ask for a good day,” says Terry. “They give the homa out toward the sun because the Hopi believe the sun is our creator.” Terry is full Hopi. Percy is Mexican; her real mother died when she was 5, and her stepmother was Hopi-”I got the best of both worlds,” she says.
The Piestewas bring the two children to Lori’s grave, about an hour and a half from their home in Timberline, a suburb on the east side of Flagstaff, whenever they ask to go.
“The Native American way is not to visit the grave,” says Terry. “You’re not supposed to even mention her name anymore. We tell people, ‘Lori is different.’ She became a person who will probably end up in history books. And we don’t keep the children from going to visit the gravesite. It helps with the healing.”
Although it is also the Hopi way for only men to bury the dead, both Percy and Carla, whose Hopi name is Wu-pa-ho-mana (“longest arrow girl”), attended Lori’s burial when her body was returned to the United States.
They also attended the community memorial service at the Warrior Pavilion at the high school in Tuba City, the town on the Navajo Nation where Lori raised and played on the girl’s softball team.
Despite generations of disagreement over land and grazing rights, the Hopi and Navajo tribes united in concern from the time Lori was listed as missing in action to the time her status was changed to killed in action.
“It wasn’t just Navajos and Hopis; it was all ethnic backgrounds,” says Percy. “Everyone came together in meals, in prayer and in grieving.”
With their grandchildren, the Piestewas mourn deeply the loss of their youngest child. Lori, a sister to Carlotta, Wayland and Adam, was born after Percy was told she couldn’t have more children.
“She was our miracle child,” Percy says.
“Her death is so fresh in our minds,” Terry says. “Being parents, it’s never over. It’s a day at a time. It’s all different now.”
“Brandon and Carla are a blessing to us because they are a part of Lori,” Percy says. “We love them and remind them very often that we and their mom are very proud of them.”
Before shipping off to Iraq on February 16, 2003, Lori signed guardianship papers, handing over full-time care of her children to her parents. Percy and Terry had been caring for Carla and Brandon already as Lori went through basic and advanced military training.
“Lori said she needed some way to support her kids and get an education,” Percy says. “She asked me if I could keep the kids.”
“She left us with two kids to remind us of her,” Terry says. “That really pulls us through. They’ll do something that reminds of their mother-déjà vu.” (Like Lori, Carla is bubbly and Brandon, athletic.)
Carla is especially close to Percy and often follows her around the house.
“Carla and I sit there and talk, and I’ll cry,” Percy says. “She’ll say, ‘Grandma, do you miss Mommy?’ We console each other.”
Too young at the time of her mother’s death to remember her well, Carla says Lori visits her often in dreams. When a door opens for no reason, or when it rains or snows, Carla tells her family her mommy’s spirit is still with them.
“Some days she acts like a little angel, and we think, ‘Did Lori come visit?’” Percy says. “She feels the presence, and she carries this aura about her. She feels, ‘OK, my mom came to see me; I’m going to share my good feelings.’ You can feel the difference.”
For 37 years of their 40-year marriage, the Piestewas lived in Tuba City, in a double-wide trailer owned by the Tuba City Unified School District, where Terry worked in the maintenance department and Percy was a school secretary. Tuba City was where the children were raised; it is where the children’s paternal grandparents, Rena and Henry Whiterock, still live.
But everything changed for the Piestewa family in April 2005, when Jessica Lynch, an Army private who had been Lori’s best friend and who was wounded in the same ambush that killed Lori (and eight other soldiers in the 507th Army Maintenance Company unit) nominated Percy and Terry to receive a new home from the ABC television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Their new house in Timberline, 70 miles from Tuba City, has all the amenities, including a Lego-inspired bedroom for Brandon, a princess bedroom for Carla, and five acres of land for their horses.
Still, they miss Tuba City.
“Our neighborhood was great,” Percy says. “It was a trailer court and there were many children who played together and we would often have block parties for all the families.”
And, the children’s paternal grandparents live in Tuba City. The children’s father, Bill Whiterock, is full Navajo; a welder, he travels with a construction job. Divorced from Lori before she was deployed to Iraq, he has since remarried and has two young daughters.
“It’s hard for Carla and Brandon to accept that their dad is not around as much as they’d like,” says grandfather Terry.
The Whiterock grands try to fill in.
“We go down to Flagstaff often to see them,” says grandmother Rena. “On their birthdays, they tell us there’s a party, we’re always there. We’re just glad they’re being taken care of so good. They seem happy. But sometimes, we go to visit, they’re not home. They’re busy.”
Brandon wrestles and plays football and basketball; Carla studies piano and gymnastics and is a Brownie. They both do tae kwon do, a Korean martial art, and sing in the church choir.
The Piestewas raised their four children in Percy’s Catholic faith and in Terry’s Hopi religion and, in the same tradition, they are raising Lori’s children in both Hopi and Catholic beliefs. Carla and Brandon attend both church and school in the San Francisco de Asís Parish in Flagstaff.
“With our two, because they have a faith in a higher entity, they know that this is not the end here on Earth, they can go either way-up in the sky to see God or to become part of the Kachina world, the spirit world,” Percy says.
Terry attends church with his family, but feels out of place.
“I am just my own Hopi way of life, but I’ll go and sit there in church,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing there. I just sit and watch.”
Percy is a certified aerobics instructor and works out with friends every Monday morning. Keeping up with her grandchildren also keeps her pretty fit. But Terry is worried; he has health issues, and relies on his sons to hunt, camp and fish with Brandon, and play sports with both children.
“That’s our biggest thing right now,” Terry says. “I’m deteriorating. I’m sure there’s this sense of insecurity with the children. How long is Grandpa going to be here?”
“We can’t be here forever,” Percy says. “We make them aware of that. I think they feel more comfortable because they know what’s going to happen-they know ‘We’re going to live with this uncle, and these other aunties and uncles will be there…” so they’re not left in limbo when we go. We’ve signed powers of attorney.”
Both retired, Percy and Terry share responsibilities with the children and attend all their school and extracurricular events, but Percy does all the driving.
“Papa can’t see too well, so he just takes care of the animals,” Brandon says.
That’s no small chore: Carla and Brandon have two horses, seven dogs, a cat, a rabbit, a rooster, six turtles and three parakeets.
“Grandma and Papa are doing a good job,” says Brandon. “I think they’re great.”