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In Fresno County, Native groups take on meaning of ‘Squaw’ and ‘Warrior’

FRESNO, Calif. — Attention to the way Native Americans are portrayed has grown in the Fresno area in recent months after the removal of a high school mascot, followed by a community effort to rename a town that holds an offensive name to Native women.

The two efforts have brought to light the question of who gets a say on issues that affect Native Americans, as some tribal groups face the battle of greater recognition despite their presence in the region for thousands of years.

Leece Lee-Oliver, an American Indian Studies professor at California State University at Fresno, said a long-standing issue among Native American communities has been how they are portrayed by the many Native-themed mascots and costumes used by people across the country.

“The real scope of human life is absent” in these stereotypical mascots, she said.

Lee-Oliver told the PBS NewsHour that she once had an adult student ask her what type of food she ate. She was confused by the question.

“It was such an odd, very emphasized, question,” the university professor, whose Native roots include Blackfeet, Choctaw and Cherokee tribes, said. She recalls responding, “Well, I’m human. I ate a bag of chips earlier.”

There are an estimated 6.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives living in the United States today, according to the latest Census Bureau data. The federal government also recognizes at least ​​574 Native tribes, although many more exist.

Native communities across the U.S. are slowly growing in size, according to the census, yet they remain historically harmed by issues like access to healthcare, land displacement and poverty – even as tribes and tribal leaders deep knowledge of land management and educational curriculum across the country.

But, even in the modern era, Native men and women face a lack of respect that stems from years of assumptions of what people think Native Americans are like, said Lee-Oliver. The portrayal of tribal communities often perpetuates negative stereotypes and even violence.

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“It’s like [people] get to put on this costume and now get to be this brutalizer. Because they get to embody what they think a Native American is like,” Lee-Oliver said. “And if you call it a ‘Warrior,’ they get to embody what they fantasize the warrior is like. But the fantasy is racist. The fantasy is very dehumanizing to how the [Native] people actually engaged in conflict.”

In recent months, a “Warrior” mascot was the subject of debate in Fresno County. A Fresno native-led group successfully pushed the Fresno Unified School District to remove the face of a Native American as the mascot at Fresno High School. The school’s library is now the official mascot, following a short battle to remove the mascot that had been the well-known face of the school for more than 100 years. The school kept the “Warrior” name.

Using the school’s official colors – purple and gold – the redesigned logo shows the front of Royce Hall, the school’s historic library, alongside an owl. The building was chosen because of its symbolic architecture, school officials said.

Since then, members of local tribal groups have focused on confronting old ideas about Indigenous people in and around Fresno County, in an effort to create better visibility and respect.

Confronting false narratives

The San Joaquin Valley is historically the home to the Yokuts people, from which more than two dozen smaller tribes descend. Their territory is one of the largest among California’s Native people.

But this history had always seemed lost to Jamie Nelson, 45, who began a petition to have the Native-themed mascot removed last year. Nelson is a member of the Choinumni tribe, a tribal group native to the Fresno County region. He said he took issue with the mascot after years of noticing little education and the misrepresentation of Native history at his school and across North America.

“The idea of false narratives – these ugly, gross, toxic stereotypes that are absolutely fueling bias against Native American people – that’s been going on for way too long,” Nelson said. “As far as our existence, or the existence of Europeans in this country, that started the moment they landed, they had to start creating these narratives about [Native Americans].”

Thousands signed Nelson’s online petition to remove the mascot, and in May 2021, the district made it official. A small group of protesters, who identified themselves as alumni of the school, stood outside the gates of the school to object to the change during the ceremony to unveil the new school logo.

The protesters felt the mascot represented the school’s history and tradition.

“This ‘Warrior’ was never meant to be anything slandered [or] to be anything other than a symbol of pride and leadership, and basically to honor Native Americans,” Jim Tuck, one of the leaders opposing the change and an alumni of the high school, told the NewsHour. “There was never any homework done by the school board.”

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A Google Maps image shows the former Fresno High School mascot, featuring a Native American image. The Fresno Unified School District removed the image and replaced it with a symbol of Royce Hall, the school’s historic library. Google Maps

Tuck, who isn’t Native American but is an alumni of Fresno High School, said the group pushing to stop the mascot change felt sidestepped by the school district’s decision to change the image, the culmination of five months of effort by community residents.

He said not enough alumni were given the chance to speak on the matter. Tuck’s group relied on support from the Native American Guardians Association, a North Dakota-based nonprofit, which advocates around the country for the “respectful” use of Native-themed mascots in order to preserve a national identity.

Scrutiny of Native-themed mascots has also expanded beyond Fresno’s city limits.

The National Congress of American Indians has held a years-long campaign to end the harmful use of Native-themed mascots around the country. The organization tracked at least 20 states that have pushed legislation to stop the use of certain offensive mascots tied to Native Americans.

In California, for example, schools have been prohibited from using the “Redskins” mascot since 2017, years before the Washington Football Team formally swapped a similar name for the newly announced Commanders. Tulare High School, in the San Joaquin Valley, renamed its mascot to “The Tribe” following the state legislation.

Other organizations have signed on to this idea. IllumiNative, a national Native American-led nonprofit, states that the use of Native people as mascots leads to harmful myths and stereotypes that persist due to lack of representation and education about Native communities, such as in the media.

According to a 2019 study from the organization, at least 65 percent of Native youth surveyed, ages 18-24, find the mascots offensive.

Nelson, of Fresno, said the history of the Native Americans in the Valley is something he didn’t learn in elementary and high school. Acknowledging the existence of local tribes may help others appreciate Native Americans more, he hopes.

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Following his push to remove the mascot, Nelson started a yard-sign campaign to promote a simple message: “The Central Valley is Yokuts Land.”

Proceeds from the sign sales will go to the Fresno American Indian Health Project, an organization that provides health care to members of Fresno County tribal groups.

“The history of Fresno does not start when it was incorporated. There is a long history of this land holding very sacred value to Native people,” Nelson said.

Pushback to the removal of the “Warrior” mascot included Terry Slatic, a trustee on the seven-member Fresno Unified School Board. He told the NewsHour that the move to change the mascot was a “slippery slope,” in addition to a waste of money.

The Board president, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, said she agreed that the nearly half million dollars approved to make the changes was high, but she ultimately voted to approve the decision. She said was in favor of spending the money, but didn’t think schools needed to rush into buying all new uniforms or gym mats.

Following the change at Fresno High, a committee is being set up to create a formal process to review mascots and school names at other campuses in the district.

‘Silent crisis’ facing Native women

The offensive words and phrases against Native Americans that appear on many signs and buildings in the U.S. call attention to a larger crisis: the high number of missing and murdered Native women.

A 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) movement tracked 506 cases of missing, murdered and unidentified cases of Native women. But the agency reports the number is likely much higher due to inadequate data gathering in police departments across the country.

The report also stated that in 2016, out of 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, the Justice Department’s missing persons database logged only 116 cases. The agency looked at 71 U.S. cities in their study.

Violence against Native Americans, like California Indians, is rooted in history, Lee-Oliver said, and it persists through the continued portrayal of Native Americans, either through mascots or the use of slurs.

She hopes the attention to Native Americans in the Fresno County area leads to a better appreciation of the Native cultures and the people in the region, but believes there is still much to understand about why some feel resistant to changing words and symbols that negatively impact millions of Native Americans.

Renaming ‘S-Valley’

Thirty miles east of Fresno, the focus of Native groups turned to Squaw Valley, a community of less than 4,000 located in the eastern hills of the county.

Late last year, members of the group “Rename S-Valley” began rallying to change the name of the community because the term “squaw” is deemed offensive to Native women.

Historically, tribal groups have maintained that the slur targets women and refers to them in a demeaning sexual manner. The earliest documented use of the term is around Aug. 8, 1871, according to a January 2022 petition the “Rename S-Valley Coalition” submitted to the Board on Geographic Names, a federal agency with the authority to rename natural features, unincorporated communities, reservoirs, channels and canals.

The Fresno County group sought the agency with their petition after failed attempts to get the board of supervisors to agree with their concern over the use of “squaw.”

According to the group’s research, submitted with the petition and shared with the NewsHour, Squaw Valley was once called “Women’s Land.” The name was previously derived from a woman’s footprint found on a rock.

But when two hunters arrived in the area, they noticed mostly women made up the land, since most of the Native men were away fighting other tribes. The hunters deemed the area “Squaw Valley.”

Hundreds of years later, Native groups have begun to retrace the history and have sought the change.

“That sense of the nothingness of Native women and girls’ value, that’s what the ‘squaw’ is,” Lee-Oliver said. “The idea of the ‘squaw’ hasn’t changed. And that’s something that is really hard to describe, I feel like there’s a lack of knowledge.”

That history may help the group’s petition to rename the community, but locals are also relying on the interior secretary’s own words. In November, Sec. Deb Haaland ordered that an advisory committee be formed to review derogatory geographic and federal land names, and to specifically remove the term from federal sites.

Although the order directly affects around 650 sites on federal land, the possibility of changing Squaw Valley’s name was made easier by Haaland’s announcement. That’s because the role of the Board on Geographic Names allows it to review terms deemed offensive by petitioners, even in unincorporated communities like Squaw Valley. The review process includes consulting with the local board of supervisors and tribal leaders.

It’s not the first time the term gets removed from a Fresno-area location. In 2003, the government ordered the term removed from an outdoor recreation spot in Fresno County over similar concerns that the term was insulting.

“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,.” Haaland said in a statement, adding that a federal task force will consult with tribes and consider public feedback on the name changes.

Squaw Valley is a thoroughfare for millions of tourists and drivers each year who visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Though the review process is now underway, the effort to change the community’s name has met resistance, including from a local supervisor who insists the name is part of the town’s history.

Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, one of the only elected officials who oversees the Squaw Valley area, said he was concerned that the name would inspire further changes, and in a Facebook video cautioned that, “nobody in the world is perfect.”

Magsig said, if there is a change, he wants the community to be the one to decide on the matter.

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“This issue of changing a name, it’s something that I don’t want to do quickly,” Magsig told the PBS NewsHour. “All voices need to be heard – and not just the Native American voices. It also needs to be the residents who may not be Native American, who currently live there or who have lived there for many generations. So, all who reside there need to have an opportunity for their voices to be heard.”

According to the latest census data, the zip code comprising Squaw Valley is 70 percent white and just 1 percent Native American.

The figure represents what many organizations have described around land displacement, which has historically uprooted Native people from their lands.

The majority of American Indian and Alaska Native people in the U.S., roughly 71 percent, live in cities rather than their original land for various reasons, including historical forced relocation or lack of quality educational, employment, and housing opportunities on tribal lands, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

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Roman Rain Tree, a father and member of the Choinumni and Dunlap Band of Mono Indians tribes, is pushing to rename a community named “Squaw Valley” over concerns the term “Squaw” is offensive to Native American women. Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour

Roman Rain Tree, who is part of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumni tribes in Fresno County, has led the push to change the Squaw Valley name. He doesn’t live in the community, but his ancestors are native to the area. His grandparents still own a piece of land given to them through an allotment by the federal government.

His mother would bring him to Squaw Valley during the summers.

Rain Tree said his, and other tribal residents’, concerns over the name should be equally valid as those who are non-Native Squaw Valley residents. The term’s derogatory nature affects people like his daughter and wife, who inspired his push, he said.

“The way America’s history is and its relationship to its tribal people in this area has caused people, [and] now their descendants, to leave the area and spread throughout Fresno County,” Rain Tree said. “So when people say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t affect you, you don’t even live here,’ Well, I beg to differ. The way America interacted with these tribal policies, it kind of forced us to spread out for survival.”

The coalition seeking to change the town’s name have settled on one idea: “Nuum Valley,” which translates to “The People’s Valley.” Rain Tree said the proposed name represents the different tribes that make up the area.

The tribes that are native to the Squaw Valley area, including the Choinumni people, are not legally acknowledged by the federal government, further complicating attempts to make demands and self-govern. But Rain Tree said the tribes have persisted thanks to elders and the connections to the land that people like him still have.

His mother is buried at a sacred burial site for the Choinumni tribe just north of the Squaw Valley community. He said the land surrounding where his ancestors lived and were laid to rest deserves a better name.

“It’s more than just a geographic site. It’s who you are. It’s your mother. You’re born of this place, and then you’re going to return back to her,” Rain Tree said. “It’s not cancel culture. It’s not ‘woke culture.’ It’s cultural survival.”