Thanksgiving 2021 has come and gone. But let’s reflect on it for a moment.
As we celebrated the holiday this year, our country was facing a number of serious problems: climate change, political divisions, the continuing coronavirus pandemic. But we’ve had reason to be thankful for some positive changes as well.
Among the positive changes we can point to is the long-overdue recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, like those who were at the “first Thanksgiving.” Unlike the traditional and untrue telling of the story of that event—a story that’s still perpetuated in at least some of the schools our children attend—the people who were already here (commonly called American Indians or Native Americans) did not view the Pilgrims’ celebratory feast as a happy one.
Even then, at the very beginning of our country’s history, the Indian people who were confronted with Europeans arriving on their shores viewed them not as welcome guests but as a threat.
If that was indeed the judgment of their leaders, they were right. The new settlers were oppressors who drove the native peoples off their land—in the words of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, these “ancestors…who stewarded our lands since time immemorial.”
Secretary Haaland, the first Native American appointed to a major cabinet post by a U.S. President and a former member of the U.S. Congress, spoke at a ceremony on November 19th, marking the 52nd anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz Island by indigenous people in 1969. During her remarks, she announced that she had established a process to review and replace derogatory names currently attached to our nation’s geography.
Specifically, Secretary Haaland ordered the federal board tasked with naming geographic places, the Board on Geographic Names, to remove the term “squaw” from federal usage. The Board, established in 1890, has in the past identified derogatory terms on a case-by-case basis, but more extensive replacements have also occurred. In 1962, Secretary Steward Udall identified the N-word as derogatory and directed the Board to eliminate its use. In 1974, the Board similarly identified a pejorative term for “Japanese” as derogatory and eliminated its use.
Most Americans may be unaware that the term “squaw” is a derogatory term used for many years to demean women, especially Native women. But Haaland was outspoken in condemning it. She said, “Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage—not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”
Several states have already passed legislation prohibiting the use of this term in place names, including Montana, Oregon, Maine, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Legislation is currently pending in both chambers of Congress to address derogatory names on public land.
The new order to eliminate this woman-demeaning term presents a significant problem in California. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on November 24th that an estimated 100-plus places in California carry the derogatory name. These include peaks, streams, trails, and other geographic features. According to the ACLU, there may be as many as 113 sites in California using this term. Looming large are two small towns in Northern California called Squaw Valley, one in North Lake Tahoe, the other in Fresno County.
The Chronicle reported a statement by Roman Rain Tree, a member of a band of Native tribes indigenous to the Fresno County area, who has been organizing a grassroots effort to rename the rural town of Squaw Valley. Secretary Haaland, he said, has made “a giant leap forward. It restores my belief that the government has elected officials who will look after our community.”
The Chronicle also reported that the California State Parks have identified a number of geographic features carrying the name and intend to rename them, moving us “closer to the goal of reckoning with our past, making space for healing and promoting equity.” Removing the term is seen as a priority.
More troublesome is renaming the towns called Squaw Valley. According to the Chronicle, thousands of people have already signed an online petition to change the name of the town in Fresno County. But some residents of the community have “balked at the idea, contending that ‘squaw’ isn’t universally offensive.” A county supervisor said that “Squaw Valley is offensive to some, but not all. … [T]he local community needs to be involved in that conversation.”
Meanwhile, the Tahoe ski resort, long named Squaw Valley, has already changed its name to Palisades Tahoe. Now it apparently needs to do a better job of publicizing its new name. A short time ago, I heard an ABC weather reporter still refer to it on national television as “Squaw Valley.”
The San Francisco Examiner also reviewed some of these issues on November 25th, writing about a ceremony to be held at Alcatraz Island on what most of us viewed as Thanksgiving Day but others viewed as “a day of mourning for Indigenous people, also known as “Unthanksgiving Day.’” This ceremony first took place in 1975, six years after indigenous activists occupied the island to claim it as a place promised to them in a treaty that was later broken by the federal government. April McGill, executive director of the American Indian Cultural Center, told the Examiner that she hoped “people think about what the holiday really means and rethink it…[not] to do away with the holiday altogether but to remove the celebration of Thanksgiving, instead [to think of it as showing] gratitude for the fall harvest.”
At the same time, California is just beginning to reckon with its long and ugly history regarding the treatment of American Indians. An essay by John Briscoe, published in the Chronicle on November 28th, outlines this history, noting that while California was admitted to the union in 1850 as a “free state,” it was, in truth, “conceived in genocide” of its Native Americans. A long-established principle of law required the U.S. to honor the private property rights of indigenous peoples. Instead, the state of California openly sponsored the “theft” of land belonging to the local tribes that lived here. Indians were also subject to the state’s Indian Slavery Act (enacted despite being in violation of the state’s constitution) until it was repealed in 1937.
Serranus Hastings, California’s first chief justice, profited off the enslavement of Indians, and the law school in San Francisco that bears his name is now in the process of renaming itself. Briscoe writes that Hastings, Leland Stanford, and many others acquired vast tracts of land through violence against Indians and made fortunes in real estate as a result. “California Indians had rights guaranteed by law—American domestic law and international law—[including] the right not to be murdered, not to be enslaved, not to be stripped at gun and knife point of their ancestral lands.” But, he says, each of these rights “was systematically and repeated violated by the state of California.”
In 2019, there was belated acknowledgment of these wrongs. Governor Gavin Newsom officially apologized “on behalf of the citizens of the state of California to all California Native Americans for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect California inflicted on tribes.” Newsom also created a Truth and Healings Council to clarify the historical record.
Although we should never forget past inequities, which have occurred throughout our country and its long history, we should also acknowledge the positive changes that have taken place in recent years. With Native American Deb Haaland as our new Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. may finally be moving towards equity for our indigenous peoples.
I, for one, am happy to know that some of these changes have happened in time for Thanksgiving 2021.