By Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org
Squaw Valley (which, in recognition of the harm this term represents, will be referred to as “S Valley”) is a census-designated place (CDP) in Fresno County, about 30 miles east of Fresno and about 9 miles north of Orange Cove. Not to be confused with the Lake Tahoe ski resort and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, S Valley is a small, rural community with terrible skiing and a population of around 3,200. It is also the subject of a growing movement by local Indigenous activists to change its name.
“What if I told you there was one common word used by sexual predators of Native American women? What if I told you some individuals vehemently defend the term as a word of honor and respect? What if I told you an entire community was named after this word?”
Those are the questions posed by Indigenous activist Roman Rain Tree on his change.org petition to change the name of S Valley. It is an issue he has been pushing the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to act on, without success, for over a year. Despite receiving over 18,500 signatures, the Board of Supervisors has so far refused to commit to any plan to rename the community. The Orange Cove City Council received a proposal back in January. However, it was delayed due partly to push back from some council members.
County supervisor and representative of S Valley, Nathan Magsig, responded to the proposal saying, “I am not interested in having any cities trying to tell communities outside of their city limits what the names should be of those communities.”
Magsig went on to say that the S Valley name will remain in place until the community members themselves decide they want it changed.
As America continues to confront and address the negative impact of its colonial history, revisiting the racist and defamatory nature of many of our geographical names has become increasingly common. Public response to these changes has also typically been very supportive. However, for the residents of S Valley, public opinion has been, at best, mixed.
In July, lifelong S Valley resident Gladys Dick McKinney told NPR, “As far as [S Valley] offending me, that name does not offend me. And I’m an Indian woman, a mother.”
Like Rain Tree, McKinney is also a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians. And like many S Valley residents, she only learned of the effort to change the name when it was brought up for council vote in January. Also, like many S-Valley residents, McKinney doesn’t truly understand what is offensive about the “S-word.”
Clouding the discussion is a debate about whether or not the “S-word” is truly an offensive term at all. While most controversial placeholder names have a clear and widely-supported offensive meaning, the “S-word” isn’t as clearly defined. The groups who oppose the term claim it is taken from the Mohawk term “ojiskwa,” which means “vagina.” It has historically been used as a derogatory term for Indigenous women. However, many historians – such as linguist Ives Goddard – attribute the word to a pidgin shortening of the Algonquin suffix “-skwa,” which is simply a feminine identifier. An Abenaki historical consultant, Dr. Marge Bruchac, wrote that words such as nidobaskwa, which means “female friend,” or manigebeskwa, which means “woman of the woods,” are examples of the use of this suffix. These experts contend that the “-skwa” suffix is just one of many Indigenous words and phrases to be broken up and co-opted into the inaccurate hodgepodge pidgin dialect of European colonizers.
According to Dr. Bruchac, “squaw” means the totality of being female and does not translate to a woman’s female anatomy. In her article “Reclaiming the word ‘Squaw’ in the Name of the Ancestors,” Dr. Bruchac wrote, “I understand the concern of Indian women who feel insulted by this word, but I respectfully suggest that we reclaim our language rather than let it be taken over.” Dr. Bruchac’s words drew sharp criticism from the Indigenous community, including several death threats. Opponents argue that Indigenous people who defend this and other offensive terms are doing a massive disservice to their communities and the fight for Indigenous rights in general.
“The word “sq**w” epitomizes the racism and sexism Native American women face,” Rain Tree states on his Change.org petition.
Rain Tree has gained the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (NorCal ACLU). They have taken up his fight to change the name of S Valley, drafting a letter to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to encourage Rain Tree’s proposed name change resolution. In the letter, NorCal ACLU detailed the long-standing, negative association of the “S-word,” both in its use towards Indigenous women and as a derogatory term for women generally. In addition, NorCal ACLU cited comprehensive studies that have shown a measurable negative psychological impact on surveyed Indigenous people and reinforced negative stereotypes among non-native Americans. The letter called on the Board of Supervisors to change the name of S Valley to one that honors and respects the Indigenous community.
Rain Tree has gone on the record stating that he believes that the Indigenous residents of S Valley want a name change. However, because many tribes are currently applying for federal recognition, they’re afraid to speak out. He is currently working on an application with the US Board on Geographic Names to get the name changed, in addition to his change.org petition.
Rain Tree and other critics of the “S-word” say that, whatever benign historical roots the term may have, it has come to mean something offensive, derogatory, and harmful to Indigenous women. Violence against native women is a serious issue that still receives very little national media coverage. According to an NCAI Policy Research Center study, California has the fifth-highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country. More than 80% of Indigenous women have reported experiencing violence, and nearly 50% have reported being victims of sexual violence. Activists point to the “S-word” and other offensive and derogatory terms as contributing to a culture of complicity that continues to turn a blind eye to the abuse, exploitation, and murder of Indigenous women.
This was more than enough reason for the more-famous Lake Tahoe ski resort that formerly shared the same name to change its name. In August, the Alpine Meadows resort announced it would immediately begin looking for a new name. Ron Cohen, President and Chief Operations Officer of S Valley Alpine Meadows, said of the decision, “While we love our local history and the memories we all associate with this place … we are confronted with the overwhelming evidence that the term ‘sq**w’ is considered offensive.”
Rain Tree and other name change proponents point to that decision and wonder why Fresno County’s Board of Supervisors is hesitant to follow suit. In addition, Orange Cove Mayor, Victor Lopez, is adamant in his opposition to changing the name.
“Citizens bring in whatever they want to bring in, and they put it on the agenda to be discussed,” Lopez explains, “I will not vote in favor of it. I can tell you right now; I guarantee you I will not support that.”
Despite the apparent refusal of local officials and the County Board of Supervisors to take action on the name change, Rain Tree and his fellow activists remain adamant in their efforts.
“The current name underscores the disparaging impact on the local community of which the name represents. The word “sq**w” perpetuates a sexualized, exploitative, and humiliating narrative that continues to focus the desires and disgust of early Euro-Americans on the bodies of Native American women,” Rain Tree’s petition states.
Victor Hugo has been credited with saying, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
The Indigenous people of the Central Valley have been fighting for dignity and equality for generations. The Indigenous women of the Central Valley have literally been fighting for their lives. The time has come for the culture of complicity to end.
To sign Roman Rain Tree’s petition to change the name of S Valley, visit https://bit.ly/3qm9oC5
To learn more about the Campaign to Change the Name, visit the NorCal ACLU https://www.aclunc.org/campaign/campaign-change-name
To learn more about NorCal ACLU, including how you can help support these and other causes, visit https://www.aclunc.org/home