State Highway 347, a 30-mile stretch of desert pavement south of Phoenix and a popular shortcut for drivers to San Diego, has sparked fighting words between the Pinal County Board of Supervisors and the Gila River Indian Community.
When it came time to expand the road, where the Duke owned a ranch and raised prize Herefords until his death in 1979, nearby property owners, including Wayne's former ranch partner, suggested it be named after the swaggering Western hero.
Not so fast, said local tribes. We don't want a highway named after that cowboy coming through our land.
Urban Giff, manager of the tribal government on the reservation, home to 9,100 Pima and Maricopa Indians, suggested the problem lies not with Wayne himself but with the unflattering way Native Americans were portrayed in his films. For example: Fort Apache, with its grandly scaled slaughter; Rio Grande, where Wayne battles even more hostile Apaches; and The Searchers, which consists of Wayne's character's five-year quest to reclaim kidnapped niece Natalie Wood from a Comanche chief.
Not all Native Americans want to scalp the project. Some members of another nearby tribe, the Ak-Chin, are more pragmatic, believing that the Duke's name can only benefit their Casino, Harrah's Ak-Chin.
Nonetheless, Wayne fans say he was a good neighbor to nearby tribes. "The movies about cowboys and Indians was just his job. The Duke didn't mean it," Alice Johnson, the wife of Wayne's former partner on the ranch, told the Arizona Republic.
Now, some officials are offering a peace pipe in the form of a compromise. The four-lane freeway, widened at a cost of $57 million, would retain the John Wayne Parkway moniker on county land, but would travel incognito through the reservation as the American Indian Veterans Memorial Parkway. The County Board of Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the compromise June 18.
That solution might please the cowboys and Indians but not the Arizona Department of Transportation, noted one observer. "I don't know how they're going to fit all those words on the Interstate 10 turnoff sign to John Wayne Parkway-American Indian Veterans Memorial Parkway."