Native Americans want to drop the name Squaw Valley. County supervisor says context matters

As white settlers moved west, so did the word “squaw”.

Eventually it took root in nearly 100 Californian place names, maybe more – Squaw Creek, Squaw Peak, Squaw Hollow, Squaw Flat.

For a historic ski resort that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and was once known as Squaw Valley, judgment came last year. Visitors are now greeted with signs welcoming them to Palisades Tahoe.

In another Squaw Valley — a hilly landscape halfway between Fresno and Kings Canyon National Park — the debate over whether to adopt a new name has pitted Native American activists against a white county supervisor.

At the heart of the battle is what “squaw” means and who decides if it’s offensive.

Roman Rain Tree, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, is leading a campaign to change the name of the land where his ancestors lived for generations, from Squaw Valley to Nuum Valley.

Nuum means “the people” in the Western Mono language.

Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who moved to the Orange County area as a teenager, accuses Rain Tree and some of his followers of being “outsiders.”

For Rain Tree, 30, who lives about half an hour away in Fresno, “squaw” is nasty vagina profanity.

“When people say, ‘Well, you don’t live here’ and they are offended, I say, ‘But you live on stolen land,'” he said.

Magsig argues that there should be no blanket ban on the word.

“What makes something hateful is the context and the heart of the person, who is making these statements,” Magsig said, adding that it was important to understand the historical origin of the name.

Some scholars believe that “squaw” comes from the Algonquin language, which was spoken by many East Coast tribes and originally meant “woman.”

A view of the Squaw Valley region of central California, where an effort is underway to change the name to Nuum Valley.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

But in European languages, the word has morphed into something darker. It eventually spread to western regions where native tribes spoke languages ​​unrelated to Algonquin.

Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute and prominent Native American rights advocate, said the “squaw” was popularized by French and British trappers, who enlisted Native women as slaves as early as the 1600s.

“They called them ‘vaginas’ and they called them worse,” said Harjo, who has been involved in the fight to change offensive names since the 1960s.

Montana, Oregon, Maine, and Minnesota are among the states that have banned “squaw” in place names.

Six proposals to replace “squaw” are listed by the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names, including Damalusung Lake for Squaw Lake and Paac Kü̱vü̱hü̱’k for Squaw Tank.

In November, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is Native American, said the term “squaw” was pejorative and established a task force to find alternate names for places on federal lands.

There are more than 650 places on federal lands that contain the term, according to a database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names.

“The term has historically been used as an ethnic, racial and gender slur, particularly for Indigenous women,” the department said in a news release.

The first documented appearance of “squaw” in Fresno County dates back to August 8, 1871, when the Squaw Valley School District was established, according to a report compiled by Fresno Library staff.

The report cites an account that the name was inspired by a footprint in the shape of a woman’s moccasin in a granite boulder pointing down the valley.

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A “Welcome to Squaw Valley” sign along State Route 180. The first documented appearance of “squaw” in Fresno County was August 8, 1871,

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Another story claims that two hunters gave the name in 1851 after finding only women and children in the valley, the men having gone off to war.

For the ski resort formerly known as Squaw Valley, a origin story recorded in a newspaper article cites the murder of an aboriginal woman.

Today, Squaw Valley in Fresno County is home to approximately 3,600 people.

Rain Tree, who also has ties to the Choinumni tribe, spent her childhood summers with her grandparents there.

As an adult, Rain Tree recorded his grandfather speaking the Mono language.

At first, the older man spoke in a hesitant voice. He had been forced to attend a boarding school where his mother tongue was forbidden. But soon the words came back, in flowing sentences.

Rain Tree was born and raised in Fresno. But her mother, Gina Charley, told her the valley was part of her DNA. When she was pregnant with him, she ate sour berries and acorns grown there.

A sign marking the 1960 Winter Olympics is seen from a chair lift at the old Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe

A sign marking the 1960 Winter Olympics is visible from a chairlift at the former Squaw Valley Ski Resort in the Lake Tahoe region. The resort and surrounding area was renamed Palisades Tahoe in September 2021.

(Haven Daley/Associated Press)

Rain Tree is a tribal liaison for Seeds of Sovereignty, a company he co-founded with his wife to help members of tribes who, like his own, lack federal recognition.

As leader of the coalition Renaming S-Valley County Fresno, Rain Tree organized virtual town halls and collected more than 35,000 signatures on an online petition. The ACLU is among the national advocacy groups expressing support.

In a photo posted on the coalition’s website, Rain Tree stands against a backdrop of brown hills dotted with trees.

Next to him is his then 10-year-old daughter Lola, who is holding a sign that reads “I’m not a squaw”.

Earlier this month, Rain Tree and the coalition submitted a name change request to the federal government.

In addition to Nuum Valley, Bear Mountain Valley and Yakutch Valley are possible alternate names.

Magsig isn’t the only local leader to have reservations about the name change.

Fresno County Supervisor Ernest “Buddy” Mendes, who represents the southwestern parts of the county, said “hardly anyone” in the valley is calling for a name change.

He said, using an expletive, that he doesn’t care what the Home Secretary thinks. All of Rain Tree’s support, he said, comes from outside the region.

Local residents “are wondering why someone from outside wants to change the name,” he said.

Not everyone in the Rain Tree Tribe, which has about 125 members and has been fighting for federal recognition for decades, has signed on to the name change either.

Shirley Guevara, left, and her daughter, Taweah Garcia, support a name change to Squaw Valley

Shirley Guevara, left, and her daughter, Taweah Garcia, both members of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, support a name change to Squaw Valley.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The lack of consensus on the tribal council stems from an acceptance of “the local hierarchy” – and the belief that people mean well despite the language they might be speaking, said Shirley Guevara, vice president of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians.

Guevara, 71, said she personally supports the name change, “as an elder and a woman”.

“Squaw Valley” reminds her of old western TV shows in which Native Americans – especially women – were treated badly.

“The squaws were worse than the dogs – [who] could be used and traded, and killed and shot,” said Guevara, who lives in nearby Dunlap.

Guevara pointed to the high rates of violence against Indigenous women in the United States and Canada, an issue also cited by other proponents of the name change.

Taweah Garcia, Guevera’s daughter, said the persistence of the term in place names encourages racism against Native American women.

“I get very emotional, because it’s not just about us,” Garcia, 45, said. “We are doing this for our ancestors. We are doing this for future generations.

Without buy-in from local authorities, changing the name could be an uphill battle.

The Federal Board of Geographic Names, which could take up to a year to make a decision, will seek recommendations from the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and the California Geographic Names Advisory Committee, along with feedback from the 574 federally recognized tribes, said Alex Demas, spokesman for the US Geological Survey.

The council generally considers contributions from local officials to represent their constituents, Jennifer Runyon, a member of the council’s geographic names research staff, said in an email to Rain Tree.

Squaw Valley as seen from George Smith Road and State Route 180 in Squaw Valley

The view from George Smith Road and State Route 180 in Squaw Valley, a town of about 3,600 people.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The board is aware of the issues the coalition has with county officials, and their input would only be “a factor in the decision,” she wrote.

“Of course, we would much rather see local government support,” she added.

Magsig, the county supervisor, said he called on Rain Tree and his supporters to set up a meeting with Valley residents.

Rain Tree wants Magsig to lead the meeting, arguing that it’s his job as an elected official and that he has more resources to maintain a COVID-safe environment.

Ben Charley, the tribe’s president, said he reiterated to Magsig that “we find the name ‘squaw’ to be offensive and ugly to our Native American women”.

Magsig said Home Secretary Haaland’s statement on the “squaw” is “a mistake” because it is too broad. He is congressional candidate to replace Devin Nunes, a Republican who quit in January to run a social media company founded by Donald Trump.

Cars drive along State Route 180 in Squaw Valley.

Cars drive along State Route 180 in Squaw Valley. There are more than 650 places on federal lands that contain the term “squaw,” according to a database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“To be fair, he must consider the wishes of residents and businesses before agreeing to the name change,” Charley, who is Rain Tree’s uncle, wrote of Magsig in an email from the January 7 to the members of the tribe. “And he said the community should be involved in the new name.”

Shortly before her mother died in 2013, Rain Tree asked her if the tribe would ever gain federal recognition with the name “Squaw Valley” still in place.

She said no and challenged him to do something about it.

“If you think you can change it, show them that the pen is mightier than the sword,” she told him.

There may be other battles to be fought with Rain Tree’s pen. Squaw Lake and Squaw Valley Lake are also in Fresno County.

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