While the battle over the name of the foothill community Squaw Valley continues in Fresno County, a new Assembly bill proposes to decide the debate.
Assemblymembers James C. Ramos (D-Highland), the first California Native American elected to the state Legislature, and Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, introduced Assembly Bill 2022 that would prohibit the use of the word “squaw” for geographic features and place names in California by Jan. 1, 2024.
“The sad reality is that this term has been used for generations and normalized, even though it is a misogynistic and racist term rooted in the oppression and belittling of indigenous women,” said Garcia.
What Places Would the Bill Affect?
A few states such as Montana, Oregon, Maine, and Minnesota have already banned the use of “squaw” as a place or geographic feature name.
And, the Squaw Valley ski resort in northern California changed its name to Palisades Tahoe.
“More than one year ago, we came to the conclusion that it was time to change our name,” the resort explains on its website. “The reasons were clear — the old name was derogatory and offensive. It did not stand for who we are or what we represent. And we could not in good conscience continue to use it.”
In California, there are about 100 places bearing the name. One is Squaw Valley, which is home to about 3,600 people on Highway 180’s gateway to Kings Canyon National Park.
AB 2022 defines a geographic feature as any location or publicly owned structure in the state. Examples: navigable waters, parks, local roads, bridges, and publicly owned buildings.
The proposed bill also defines “place” as a natural geographic feature or street, alley, or other road within the jurisdiction or a political subdivision of the state.
Many Native Americans Say the Name Is Offensive
Roman Rain Tree, who is behind the petition, considers the word offensive and derogatory to indigenous women. He identifies as Choinumni and is also a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, a neighboring tribe.
Shirley Guevara, who is also a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and serves as the vice-chair, said the name has always been offensive to native women.
Her daughter Taweah Garcia, a formal tribal member, and her niece Morningstar Gali, who works as the California tribal and community liaison for the International Indian Treaty Council, share that sentiment.
“This is something that we have known all of our lives, that the word ‘squaw’ has a negative connotation to it,” said Taweah Garcia.
The Debate Over the Name
While there has been much debate about where the word originated from, native individuals, the townspeople of Squaw Valley, as well as politicians, have explained what the word means to them.
According to Ramos, the word is an idiom that came into use during the westward expansion of America, and it is not a tribal word.
“For decades, Native Americans have argued against the designation’s use because behind that expression is the disparagement of Native women that contributes to the crisis of missing and murdered people in our community,” said Ramos.
“AB 2022 would ban the use of the S-word and establish a process for renaming locations with that offensive racial and sexist term which began as a derogatory word used against Native American women.”
Said Assemblymember Garcia: “AB 2022 begins to correct an ugly and painful part of our history by removing it from California’s landmarks; it’s the least we can do to help our indigenous women heal.”
The Other Side of the Debate
However, others say the name isn’t offensive.
For example, Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig says that a local tribe named the town 100 years ago. He is adamant that the word was not always controversial.
“For whatever reason, nobody wants to look at the genesis of the name for this region,” said Magsig. “All they want to talk about is how that name is perceived today because the name has not always been steeped in controversy.”
Meanwhile, Billy Melton, a resident since 1995 told GV Wire that he’s never heard of the name used in a derogatory way.
“You know, I’m proud to live in Squaw Valley, under the name of Squaw Valley, and if it does actually have to be changed, we the members of Squaw Valley should pick the name,” Melton said.
Federal Task Force Will Help Rename ‘Squaw Names’
In November 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland formally declared “squaw” a derogatory term. Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican, is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.
Through a secretarial order, Haaland put together a federal task force to find replacement names for all valleys, lakes, creeks, and other sites on federal land bearing the name.
According to a database from the Board on Geographic Names, there are more than 650 federal land units that contain “squaw.”
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” said Haaland.