Squaw Valley, a popular Lake Tahoe ski resort, announced in September that it would change its name because the term was “derogatory and offensive.” A press release and a new sign made it official.
In California, however, that is not the end of the story. Another Squaw Valley can be found hundreds of miles south in Fresno County, near Kings Canyon National Park. The 3,500-person town in central California dates back to the nineteenth century and is one of nearly 100 in the state to use the contentious term in its name.
The word “squaw,” derived from the Algonquin language, is thought to have originally meant “woman,” but it has since become a misogynistic and racist term used to disparage Indigenous women. It’s also a common place-name in the United States, with over 650 federal sites bearing the name.
Following the historic protests against racism and white supremacy in the United States in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, cities, schools, and parks across the country began reconsidering controversial names with racist histories. A commission in California renamed a park after a white settler accused of murdering Indigenous people. In response to residents’ concerns, the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to change the name of a racist street in north Lake Tahoe. The interior secretary, Deb Haaland, announced this month that she would take steps to remove the misogynist and racist term from federal lands across the United States.
After the Tahoe ski resort first announced its intention to rename, renaming efforts in Fresno County accelerated. Roman Rain Tree, a member of the local Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumni tribes who lives 30 miles away from the land he calls S-Valley, hoped the Tahoe decision would persuade officials in Fresno County that it was time to change the name, which he says “memorizes the sexualized and genocidal acts that early settlers perpetrated on Indigenous people in this country.”
However, the effort has devolved into a somewhat tense battle between activists like Rain Tree and officials in this conservative region, who argue that the name is part of the region’s identity and that any plan to change it must come from residents themselves.
Rain Tree claims that when he attempted to meet with the board of supervisors, he was told that he would first need to demonstrate support for a name change. Rain Tree started an online petition, which has received nearly 20,000 signatures from people all over the United States.
Since then, he and other activists have held panels and made public service announcements about the name. They have also begun working with the ACLU, who believe that evaluating names, as well as who and what they honor, is critical.
However, not everyone is in favor of the change. According to Magsig, the “overwhelming” majority of correspondence he has received is from residents opposed to changing the name. Lonnie Work, a fifth-generation Fresno County resident who owns a real estate company and a motel named after the city, is one of them. Work expressed concern that the effort was not initiated by someone who currently resides in the community.
Rain Tree is open about the fact that he and other activists do not live in town, but he claims that this is due in part to racist policies that drove their forefathers out. He and others have been treated as outsiders rather than residents, he claims. According to Simon, the ACLU’s advocate, county officials have attempted to portray the movement as being driven by the organization.
Getting rid of the name will necessitate educating residents about its history and the pain it causes many Indigenous people, he said. However, he claims that local officials have not taken the effort seriously. Activists recently staged a protest outside the board of supervisors meeting, during which Rain Tree was escorted out while making public comments. He had turned his back on the board while speaking to show how he felt the supervisors were treating activists.
Despite the lack of support from local officials, Rain Tree is hopeful that one day the town will be known by a different name. He and other activists have suggested Nim Valley, which means human, or Bear Mountain Valley, a name shared by the local library.