Native Americans Want to Ditch the Name Squaw Valley. A County Supervisor Says Context Matters

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LOS ANGELES — As white settlers made their way west, so did the word "squaw."

Eventually, it took root in nearly 100 California place names, possibly 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, the reckoning came last year. Visitors are now greeted by signs welcoming them to Palisades Tahoe.

In another Squaw Valley — a landscape of rolling hills about 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 whether 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 area from Orange County as a teenager, accuses Rain Tree and some of his supporters of being "outsiders."

To Rain Tree, 30, who lives about half an hour away in Fresno, "squaw" is an ugly profanity for vagina.

"When people say, 'Well, you don't live here' and get offended, I say, 'But you're living on stolen land,'" he said.

Magsig argues that there shouldn't be a blanket prohibition on the word.

"What makes something hateful is the context and how the person's heart is, who's making those statements," Magsig said, adding that it was important to understand the historical origin of the name.

Some scholars believe "squaw" came from the Algonquin language, which was spoken by many tribes on the East Coast and originally meant "woman."

But in European languages, the word morphed into something darker. It eventually spread to western areas where Indigenous tribes spoke languages unrelated to Algonquin.

Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute and a leading Native American rights advocate, said "squaw" was popularized by French and British trappers, who conscripted Indigenous women as slave laborers as early as the 1600s.

"They were calling them 'vaginas,' and they were calling them worse," said Harjo, who has been involved with the fight to change offensive names since the 1960s.

Montana, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota are among the states that have outlawed "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, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is Native American, declared the term "squaw" to be derogatory and established a task force to find replacement names for places on federal land.

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

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

The earliest documented appearance of "squaw" in Fresno County dates to Aug. 8, 1871, when the Squaw Valley School District was created, according to a report compiled by Fresno library staff.

The report cites an account that the name was inspired by an imprint shaped like a woman's moccasin in a granite rock pointing toward the valley.

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

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

Today, the Squaw Valley in Fresno County numbers about 3,600 residents.

Rain Tree, who also has ties to the Choinumni tribe, spent summers as a child at his grandparents' home there.

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

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

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

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

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

In a photo on the coalition's website, Rain Tree stands in front of a backdrop of tree-studded brown hills.

Beside him is his daughter Lola, then 10, who holds a sign reading, "I am not a squaw."

Earlier this month, Rain Tree and the coalition submitted an application for the name change with the federal government.

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

Magsig is not the only local leader with reservations about the name change.

Fresno County Supervisor Ernest "Buddy" Mendes, who represents southwestern portions of the county, said "virtually nobody" in the valley is calling for a name change.

He said, using an expletive, that he doesn't care what the Interior secretary thinks. All of Rain Tree's support, he said, is from outside the area.

Local residents are "wondering why somebody from the outside wants to change the name," he said.

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

The lack of consensus on the tribal council stems from an acceptance of "the local hierarchy" — and a belief that people mean well despite the language they might employ, said Shirley Guevara, vice chair 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 poorly.

"Squaws were worse than dogs — [who] could be used and traded, and killed and shot," said Guevara, who lives in neighboring Dunlap.

Guevara highlighted high rates of violence against Indigenous women in the U.S. 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 this is not just for us," said Garcia, 45. "We're doing this for our ancestors. We're doing this for future generations."

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

The federal Board on Geographic Names, which could take up to a year to make a decision, will solicit recommendations from the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names, as well as comments from all 574 federally recognized tribes, said Alex Demas, a spokesperson for the U.S. Geological Survey.

The board typically views input from local officials as representing their constituents, Jennifer Runyon, a research staffer for the Board on Geographic Names, said in an email to Rain Tree.

The board is aware of issues the coalition has with county officials, and their input would be just "one factor in the decision," she wrote.

"Of course, we would much prefer to see local government support," she added.

Magsig, the county supervisor, said he has called on Rain Tree and his supporters to hold a meeting with valley residents.

Rain Tree wants Magsig to spearhead 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 chairman, said he has reiterated to Magsig that "we do find the name 'squaw' as offensive and ugly toward our American Indian females."

Magsig has said that Interior Secretary Haaland's declaration about "squaw" is "a mistake" because it is overly broad. He is running for Congress to replace Devin Nunes, a Republican who resigned in January to head a social media company founded by Donald Trump.

"To be fair, he has to take into consideration the will of the residents and businesses before he agrees to the name change," Charley, who is Rain Tree's uncle, wrote of Magsig in a Jan. 7 email to tribe members. "And he said the community should be involved with the new name."

Shortly before his 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, then show them 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.