The word squaw referring to a Native American woman is a slur. It is derogatory and offensive and like the N word, some even call it the S word. It is to Native Americans more than an insult to women, it is an insult to the land, and to the whole culture. There are in the US today something like 660 places with that word in them. And Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior and the first Native American Cabinet Secretary is looking for replacement names for rivers, lakes, resorts and other places. These places occur in all but ten states. And not all are on US government owned land. One of the most famous, Squaw Valley, the Northern California resort of Lake Tahoe which hosted the 1960 Olympics is in private hands. It rebranded itself as Palisades Tahoe a few months ago after a long debate over its identity. As far as California is concerned there are some 100 places with the slur in their names and a bill has been introduced in the state Assembly to rename them. Search engines have not yet caught up with the name changes. Type in Squaw in Google Maps or Apple Maps and the names of all places will come up, including Squaw Valley. Not all places are as known as this one, some are in more obscure places.
The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers published a report this year that pointed out that renaming geographical places that bear a name that is a slur to Native American or African American women was not an effort to cancel history. It said, “Rather it is an opportunity to provide a more honest accounting of America’s past and a gesture towards healing historic wounds.”
Because I’m an immigrant I know how hard it is to build a new life in another country. And because I was a legal immigrant, I’ve become sensitive to what it means to be undocumented, because from what I’ve learned over the years, their hardships dwarf what mine were. When I read in the Guardian Newspaper a story about illegal immigrants who turned to activism to help others who were undocumented, I had to pay attention. Their names are not famous, but their work speaks to the resilience and courage of the human spirit. There are people like Viri Hernandez and her mother Rita, Reyna Montoya and German Cadenas. Cadenas, for example, came to Maricopa County in Arizona at 15 to visit his father at Christmas and escape the destabilization of Venezuela. When his visa ran out he opted to stay with his father and earn money to send back to his family. He was undocumented for 9 years. Now a citizen he is also a professor of psychology at Lehigh University and has published quite a lot of research on what it means to be an undocumented immigrant. Actually several psychologists have documented the mental health issues of people who are undocumented, the anxiety, depression, PTSD and feeling of low-self-worth they experience. These issues stem from being discriminated against, hunted, detained and marginalized by the view people have of these immigrants. What Cadenas research found, was that something he called critical consciousness, helps people cope with the traumas they have to live with. In plain English he means that when they turn to social activism, their pursuit of social justice and their work to help others is what helps them cope with the hardships, and deal with the traumas.
Millions are living with these mental health issues and because of climate change and political upheavals the numbers are estimated to grow. I hope that the work of people like Cadenas will help increase understanding of the issues migrants face, and that that understanding will make us all a bit more better humans.
What is it like to be the daughter of an imprisoned international figure, in this case someone who opposed Vladimir Putin? How does one cope? What kind of strength must one develop? I read about Daria Navalnaya, the 21-year-old daughter of Alexei Navalny in an interview she gave the German magazine Der Spiegel and these questions kept coming up for me . As we know Navalny is serving a prison sentence for having criticized and stood up to Putin, not an ordinary adversary. Since 2019 Daria has been studying psychology at Stanford University in California. Recently she traveled to Strasbourg in France to appear before the European parliament to give a speech on behalf of her father and receive its prestigious human rights award, The Sakharov Prize. In the interview she talks about corresponding with her father, asking for his advice about the speech she was giving, visiting him in prison and seeing him look pale and weaker. She also talks about the fears she’s always had for him and growing up ending up seeing everyone as a spy. For some this would be paralyzing, for her it isn’t. She sounds focused and determined. We all have our issues and problems, even serious ones, but few of us are confronted with this kind of challenge. Many I’m sure have had experiences that helps them relate to Navalnaya. I for one had a sister who lived 17 years as a total paraplegic . every time I stand up under a hot shower I remember she couldn’t. Daria had to learn to delve into herself for strengths most of us do not require. I suspect she had to do that just to survive. Doesn’t matter how she did it or what strength she developed, she did it and in doing it she reminds us of how strong human beings can be in the face of big challenges.
Juan Haines and Kevin Sawyer are both incarcerated journalists who wrote for The Guardian about a simulated election at San Quentin prison in California. In cooperation with Solitary Watch, a non-profit which aims at documenting and advocating against solitary confinement, they helped with this mock election. Solitary Watch sent 1600 ballots to the prison by Express mail. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR, never delivered them. So they improvised and some 150 ballots were handmade and passed out and later 170 more were smuggled in with the explanation that since CDCR had not delivered the sent ballots, they had to improvise. Although there were some votes for Trump, Biden won. The ballots had a place for them to say why they were voting and why they voted for their candidate. What comes across, which is why I wanted to write about this, is that inmates are no different from ordinary people. They want to vote, want a voice in their elected officials, want to be good citizens, wan to participate. “ I want to be heard” one man wrote on the back of his makeshift ballot. Another wrote, “I’d like to feel like a citizen; feel like I am important too”. In California as in many other states people in prison and on parole cannot vote and they are still disenfranchised when they finish their sentence. The U.S. has the largest proportion of its citizens in prison, and as a whole the prison population is greater than just about any American city. Of course as the authors noted, they didn’t have to worry about violence at the polls or even social distancing, but still they were very aware that their vote would not count. Most inmates will eventually be released and be part of the society. I’m among those who believe allowing them to vote would help create a sense of belonging, of engagement with their communities and we would all benefit.