Indigenous activists want to change a California town’s racist name. Officials are pushing back

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In September, the popular Lake Tahoe ski resort Squaw Valley announced it would change its name, recognizing that the term was “derogatory and offensive”. It went official with a press release and a new sign.

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But that’s not the end of the name in California. Hundreds of miles south in Fresno County, another is Squaw Valley, near Kings Canyon National Park. The central California city of about 3,500 people dates back to the 19th century, and is one of nearly 100 places in California to use the controversial term in its name.

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The word “squaw”, which is believed to have been derived from the Algonquin language, once meant “woman”, however, this has become a misogynistic and racist term used to demean indigenous women. It is also a commonly used placename in the US. 650 Federal Sites Include it in their name.

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Following the historic 2020 protests against racism and white supremacy in the US following the killing of George Floyd, cities, schools and parks across America began to reconsider controversial names with racist histories. a california commission renamed a park Which was named after a white resident accused of killing indigenous people. Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to change A racist street name in North Lake Tahoe in response to residents’ concerns. This month, Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior, announced that she would take steps to remove anti-feminist and racist words From federal lands across America.

The Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, on November 19 declared “squaw” a derogatory term and said she was taking steps to remove the word from federal place names. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Name change efforts in Fresno County accelerated after Tahoe Ski Resort first announced its planned change. Members of the local Dunlop band of Roman Rain Trees, Mono Indians and Choinumni tribes who live 30 miles from the land they called S-Valley, hoped that Tahoe’s decision would convince Fresno County officials That it is time for change there, too, and do away with a name that he says “recalls the sexual and genocidal acts the early settlers did on indigenous peoples in this country”.

But the effort has turned into a sometimes tense battle between activists like Rain Tree and officials in this conservative area, who argue that the name is part of the area’s identity and that any plans to change it must come from the residents themselves.

“The process has to be driven by the community,” said Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who represents the area. “A name is not just something on a piece of paper. Name is identity.”

When Rain Tree tried to meet with the board of supervisors, he says, he was told that he would first have to show there was support for the name change. Rain Tree launched an online petition, which has since collected nearly 20,000 signatures from people across America.

He and other activists have since held panels and issued public service announcements about the name. He has also started working with the ACLU, which he says is important to evaluate names, and who and what they respect.

“There is no reason why racial and anti-feminist placenames should persist,” said Teddy Simon, an Indigenous justice advocate with the ACLU of Northern California.

That message resonated with Linda Tubach, who has lived in the rural Fresno County outpost for 10 years. During that time, the retired high school social studies teacher is ashamed to tell coworkers and friends where she lives. When her husband was recently introduced at an event, the host did not want to reveal where the couple lived.

“It’s embarrassing to even put your return address on envelopes,” she said. “Words send a message and that’s something I understand as a social studies teacher.”

The couple said that Tubach and her husband, Bob McCloskey, have wanted to see a name change over the years, but this is the first time that there has been an organized effort to do so. He has written to county supervisors to express his support for the change and has begun writing “S…”. Wally” on his mail.

“There are a lot of local residents who are intimidated by the name and would prefer a different name,” Tubach said.

“It’s not just the area where residents are affected, it’s everyone across California,” McCloskey said.

But not everyone supports change. He said Magsig says the letter they received was from residents who are protesting the name change. One of them is Lonnie Work, a fifth-generation Fresno County resident who owns a realty company and motel named after the city. Work said he was concerned that the attempt did not go down well with anyone who currently lives in the community.

“I am not against changing the name, if that is something that the people who live here want to do. I am against people using it for a political agenda,” said Work. “Even though, I name my business I’m not going to change.”

Rain Tree has been open about the fact that he and some other activists do not live in the city, but says this is due, in part, to racist policies that singled out their ancestors. He said that he and others were treated as outsiders and not as people belonging to the region. ACLU attorney Simon said county officials have tried to portray the movement as being run by the organization.

“One of the things we have heard from the board of supervisors is that we are outside agitators. “It’s about canceling the culture,” Simon said. “It is led by local Indigenous people and blaming the ACLU is a way of silencing and devaluing the local Indigenous leadership.”

A sign stands outside the Squaw Valley Motel among dry grass and gravel on the side of a two-lane road.
The owner of the Squaw Valley Motel says he has no plans to change the name of his business, even if the city is renamed. Photograph: Dani Anguano / The Granthshala

When the Rain Tree moves past the city sign, it serves as a grim reminder of the atrocities of the indigenous people, and the disproportionate rate of disappearance and murder of indigenous women and girls.

Rain Tree said, “Besides being counterproductive, it is a reminder of how much I feel that people want indigenous peoples to leave and ‘get rid of the Indian problem’.” “‘Let us glorify our version of history.'”

Eliminating the name would require educating residents about its history, he said, and the pain it brings to many indigenous peoples. But the local authorities did not take the effort seriously, he said. Activists recently protested outside a meeting of the Board of Supervisors where the Rain Tree was escort Outside while offering public comment. While speaking, he turned his back on the board to demonstrate how he felt the supervisors were treating the workers.

Magsig, who represents the area, said he was ready to change the name if residents so desired, but it would not undo the past, and could cause harm.

“Would you be willing to change your name? or does [it] Does it matter to you?” he said. “There are names and things that used to hurt a lot in the past but changing the name does not erase the past but it does harm. To the extent that the name is associated with wounds, heal it. There needs to be more talk about these things to do.”

Despite the lack of support from local authorities, Rain Tree hopes that one day the city will be known by a different name. He and other activists have suggested Nim Valley, meaning human, or Bear Mountain Valley, a name shared by the local library.

“The spirit of the community is not defined in the name,” he said. “The spirit of community is defined by how people come together and how people react in adverse moments that challenge the community as a whole. This is one of those moments.”

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