A derogatory word is being removed from public spaces. Some in this California town see it differently

FRESNO, Calif. — The rural, scattered community of Squaw Valley could soon have its name changed, but residents disagree over what that would mean.

Late last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 2022, a law that will remove the term “squaw” from geographic names and public places in the state. Earlier in September, in a separate move, the Department of Interior announced it had finalized new names at nearly 650 geographic features across the country, after Secretary Deb Haaland declared the term derogatory in November 2021.

Haaland, a member of Pueblo of Laguna and 35th generation New Mexican, is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. The state and federal actions follow years of advocacy from Native groups pushing to end the use of the term because of its history as an offensive slur against Indigenous women.

Squaw Valley is not included under the federal order because it isn’t federal land, but Haaland’s directive did influence the decision by a group of tribal residents to petition the U.S. Board on Geographic Names at the start of 2022 for the change.

The Department of Interior removed the term "squaw," which is considered offensive to Indigenous women, from more than 650 federal sites. Secretary Deb Haaland declared the term offensive in late 2021, triggering a process to rename the sites. Map by Jenna Cohen/PBS NewsHour

Residents who support the petition want the area to be renamed to “Yokuts Valley,” in recognition of the Yokuts Indigenous people who are native to the central San Joaquin Valley area. That petition is ongoing, but if it fails, the place name will still fall under the new California law, which covers more than 100 locations in the state – including geographic features, streets and roads, and public agency names – where the term will be removed beginning in 2025.

Shirley Guevara and her daughter Taweah Garcia have celebrated the decision to remove the term from other place names and support giving Squaw Valley a new name. Guevara, who is vice chair of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, a tribe with a long history in the Fresno County area, said the changes are long overdue.

“It not only affects us here in California – us California Native women – but it’s throughout the country and around all the different areas where Native women live and that word is being used,” said Guevara, who expressed her own views to the PBS NewsHour, and did not speak on behalf of the tribe.

Garcia said she has personally witnessed instances when the term was used to disrespect or belittle women. While not everyone views the term in the same way, she said, to her, its use as an insult makes its use in other settings an issue of Native Americans’ human rights.

“This isn't just a name that's being placed on a sign. This is [a word] in circles that people feel that it's OK to still say, and it's not OK to say. It's not OK to describe this as a woman still at this day and age,” Garcia said.

But while many tribal groups and civil rights organizations have cheered the legislation affecting other locations, support is far from universal in the community of Squaw Valley, where debate has led to disagreement, even among relatives. As the word starts to vanish from streams, mountain peaks and canyons, competing interpretations of its meaning have other residents challenging the move.

Troubled history, steps toward change

Linguists trace the term “squaw” to the Algonquian-speaking Native Americans of southeastern New England who are believed to have used it to mean “woman.” But another theory suggests it might have had an anatomical meaning in the Mohawk language, leading to a more vulgar, sexualized use by white colonists. In either case, many Native Americans now consider the word offensive – a fact that many modern dictionaries include in their definition.

Since 1995, policy efforts across the U.S. to address the term in place names have been far and few between, with only a handful of states – like Minnesota, Montana and Maine – taking a look at the issue.

Haaland’s 2021 official order, which called for a process to explore new names at federal sites, gave credence to the Native-led movement on addressing hurtful words, especially amid an ongoing crisis of violence against Indigenous women, which has led to high rates of assault, disappearance and murder.

“Acknowledging the historic invisibility and erasure of California Indian peoples that included devaluing the role of Native women and girls is crucial for our current struggles for justice and recognition,” Morning Star Gali, a community liaison with the International Indian Treaty Council, said in a statement following the signing of AB 2022.

Hundreds gathered at the California state Capitol building in Sacramento on Sept. 23 to celebrate the new law, which passed with unanimous support. The moment also commemorated the 55th celebration of Native American Day. The bill was brought forward by Democratic Assemblymembers Cristina Garcia and James Ramos – the first California Native American elected to the state legislature – and had 13 co-authors.

In a statement, Ramos said the term in question “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.”

Roman Rain Tree, who has led the effort to rename Squaw Valley and who is a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, as well as the Choinumni people, wishes people in his community would be open to learning the history and why tribal groups are pushing to be represented more fairly.

He has seen how opinions have been split on this issue: Some women who spoke at a recent town meeting over the proposed law said their mothers called them “squaws” growing up, and disagreed the term should go away. Rain Tree said the ordeal has caused public disputes among family members.

In these public conflicts between members of the Native community, “our elders and our other tribal leaders just turn away from it like, 'We don't want part of that. We're not trying to fight among our people in public and have other people look at us like that. That's not what we do. That's not our way,’” Rain Tree said.

Some residents don’t want a change

In Squaw Valley, a local post office, cemetery, fire station and school – along with the town’s name – would all likely fall under the law’s definition for renaming.

Lesley Hooper, a cattle rancher and longtime resident of Squaw Valley, isn’t in favor of the potential change. To her, the word has never meant anything negative, and she said she knows Native Americans in the town who use the word and don’t take issue with it either.

“Certain words at one time can mean something else. And then, you know, 20 or 30 years down the line, it has a totally different meaning,” said Hooper, who is not Native. “There are people out there, I’m sure, that have been called ‘squaw’ in a derogatory [way], and I do understand that part of it.”

Putting aside the history of the word, Hooper pointed to the way people are deeply invested in the town’s name: T-shirts and bumper stickers commonly display the town label, and it’s part of business names located along the town’s main highway, too.

At the community meeting, held days before the law was signed, several dozen residents spoke out about the potential changes for the first time since the renaming efforts began.

Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who organized the meeting and is one of the few locally elected officials residents can look to in the unincorporated town, mailed out forms where residents could state whether they support the name change, and if so, to what. About 1,400 mailers were sent out for the community of about 3,500 people. Magsig told residents at the meeting they could make copies at home if there were others wanting to weigh in. He had received back more than 300 mailers at the time of publication.

Since efforts to rename the community began about two years ago, Magsig has argued the town’s name should be left up to community residents, even as the term is replaced around them through other means. He held a handful of Facebook live streams where he shared updates on the efforts, including criticizing the lack of community input.

“At the end of the day, my goal is to make sure that people have a say when it comes to their community, whether it be renaming it or not. Any kind of a process needs to start in the community that it's going to affect,” Magsig told the NewsHour.

But residents like Hooper said not everyone had been aware that these updates were happening. Many residents in the community are older, don’t have computers and typically don’t read the newspaper, Hooper said, so many learned of a renaming effort a week before the meeting.

Some residents attending the community meeting said they’re afraid a change to the town’s name will mean disruptions to things like fire and health insurance paperwork or getting their mail delivered if their address isn’t recognized. Hooper said living in an unincorporated community means residents mostly have to figure things out on their own. But she said residents are committed to helping counter the name change as much as they need to, and hold on to the town’s history.

Hooper began circulating a petition in favor of keeping the name after the community meeting, hoping to avoid a possible change. So far, she has gathered just over 2,000 signatures in an online petition and additional signatures on paper, and plans to submit it to the county supervisor.

“It’s not only about keeping our name, but standing behind [Native Americans] as a community as well, and not erasing their history and their culture up here, because to them and to a lot of us it means a lot,” Hooper said. “It’s worth doing whatever we can to let other people know what is going on and to have their support, if they feel free to support us.”

RoseAnne Dominguez, who rose up at the community meeting to share that her ancestors have lived in Squaw Valley dating back to the time of the conquistadors, said nobody ever came to her to ask her opinion on removing the term from her community – an action she said she “deeply resents.” Dominguez is descendant of Wukchumni and Wuksachi tribes, in addition to others, and said she believes there can be differences of opinion among tribal residents.

At the town’s community meeting, she lamented that the term offends other Native Americans, though she has personally witnessed women stand up to others over the use of the word. But she takes no offense from it herself. Around her, the term has never been used negatively by others, and always meant one thing: a woman. And many strong women were raised in Squaw Valley, she said.

“We know what it means to be a strong woman, because … we are the people that kept our families going when the men went out to hunt, and to gather and get the supplies to survive,” Dominguez, 62, said. “I think my family’s history should have a say in my family’s home.”

Meanwhile, to those who view the issue differently, like Guevara and Garcia, removing the word from public spaces would honor their ancestors who weren’t able to advocate for change in the past. Garcia’s grandmother raised eight children, worked for a cattle rancher in Squaw Valley and, she said, likely struggled to voice her concerns over the treatment and representation of Native Americans.

“When people say, ‘Why now?’ Because we can right now,” Garcia said. “Because we are speaking for our ancestors and relatives that weren’t able and weren’t able to at the time.”