Piestewa Games going strong and looking to grow

Mark Shaffer
7/31/03

FLAGSTAFF, - There was hardly a dry eye in Sinagua High School's gymnasium recently as Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano presented a dozen roses to the family of war hero Lori Piestewa.

Then, the emotions were ratcheted up yet another notch when Piestewa's son, 5-year-old Brandon Whiterock, hoisted the ceremonial torch above his head signifying the opening of the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games.

And, by the end of the largest Native American athletic gathering in the country, organizers of the event were scrambling, trying to figure out how to accommodate its growing popularity in the future.

The event drew more than 1,500 competitors from 26 tribes in Arizona, California, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, said J.R. Murray of Flagstaff, one of the event's organizers. They represented 52 different communities and competitors ranged in age from 7 to 73. Last year, in the first Native American games, there were only about 1,000 competitors among Arizona tribes only.

"Because of the difficulty in coming up with venues, we had to have the basketball in Tuba City and the softball in Page," Murray said. "It would be nice to have all the events in Flagstaff in the future."

Many Flagstaff city officials share that feeling, also.

In fact, plans already are being made to make Flagstaff a mega, midsummer gathering place for Natives from around the country, tying in the Piestewa Games to Flagstaff's Indian Days festivities, which were held a week later this year than the Piestewa games.

"The Flagstaff city officials have decided they want to back their event up to ours and make it one huge weekend," said Eric Widmark, executive director of the Grand Canyon Games, a non-profit organization which oversees amateur athletic competition in Arizona, including the Piestewa games. "This event really caught on last year and having Lori Piestewa's name attached to it made it even more popular this year. Lori's family has indicated that they will continue their association with it in the future."

Widmark said the basketball competition would be moved to Flagstaff next year but softball would remain in Page because of the lack of playing fields in Flagstaff.

Kim Peterson, a Flagstaff city spokeswoman, said combining the two events "makes perfect sense and we're looking forward to what happens with this next year."

Years ago, Flagstaff was home to the annual pow wow, one of the largest American Indian gatherings in the country, which was held at a downtown park. But the event was cancelled because the central area of the city wasn't equipped to handle the huge crowds it ultimately attracted from the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation.

The modified Indian Days celebration was begun in the early 1990s, which features artisans and booths in the downtown area along with an all-Indian rodeo.

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