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California is trying to purge this offensive term from all public places

San Francisco Chronicle 9/14/2022 By Gregory Thomas

Darrel Cruz recently wrote up proposals to rename three landscape features of the dramatic mountains surrounding the Palisades Tahoe ski resort — all of which carried the derogatory term “squaw.”

Cruz, director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Washoe Tribe, whose ancestral lands encompass Lake Tahoe, was instrumental in helping Palisades rebrand itself last fall after operating as Squaw Valley for 72 years.

Many Native American tribes deride the term as an offensive, dehumanizing objectifier of Indigenous women.

Cruz, a member of the Hungalelti band of Washoe, was grateful for the resort’s gesture — his tribe had been asking it to change its name for decades — but felt there was more to do. The valley itself, as well as a creek and peak there, all carried the term. Cruz submitted petitions to the federal Board on Geographic Names and waited.

Last week, he learned that all three of his suggested names were accepted: Squaw Peak and Squaw Creek have been renamed Washeshu Peak and Washeshu Creek; the term is a pluralization of Washoe. Perhaps more importantly, the valley has been officially relabeled Olympic Valley, bringing it into alignment with the name of the ski community there.

“Olympic Valley is a big deal for me,” Cruz said. He has been working to restore the few Washoe cultural sites in the valley in hopes of reviving his tribe’s link to the land. Removing the term “squaw” removes a barrier, he said.

“It just furthers our commitment to reconnecting with our places without that name lingering over it,” Cruz said. “Now that the whole valley is not called ‘squaw,’ it’s inviting us back to our homeland.”

In a Sept. 8 announcement, the Interior Department revealed that it has renamed 643 sites and features on federal lands across the country that once used the term “squaw” — mountains, valleys, creeks, canyons, valleys, lakes and more — including the ones in Cruz’s petitions. The overhaul, which affects 80 sites in California, followed an order by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last fall to excise the term as an effort to “ensure that our public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming,” Haaland, the first Native American to hold the post, said in a statement.

Most of the new monikers come from indigenous dialects and are meant to honor the country’s earliest inhabitants. In Lake County, for example, Big Squaw Valley became Habematolel Valley, so named for a band of the native Pomo people that have long occupied the region.

In response to the federal announcement, the California Department of Parks and Recreation said it has renamed six features on its lands that once held the term — two in Auburn State Recreation Area, two in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and two in Southern California.

The changes were welcomed by indigenous communities and grassroots organizations that have been asking local and state governments — for decades, in some cases — to remove the harmful term from public lands.

“California has the dubious distinction of being the state with the most geographic features named with this offensive term,” said Paul Spitler, senior legislative policy manager at the Wilderness Society, which worked on the renaming initiative. “It’s high time the state got rid of racist and offensive place names.”

The moves by the Interior Department and State Parks didn’t remove the term entirely from California place names.

For example, a rural town in Fresno County called Squaw Valley, where debate over the term’s meaning has simmered lately, has not been renamed, though it may be soon. The Board on Geographic Place names “will seek out additional review from the local communities and stakeholders before making a final determination” on unincorporated communities, the interior department said. Squaw Valley is an unincorporated community, though more details of exactly which places the board would review were not immediately available.

Separately, a bill on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk could purge the term from the state. AB2022 would require local governments to scrub the word “from geographic features and place names” by 2025. Several states have passed laws to eradicate the word from public lands, including Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Maine.

A local coalition of tribal members and advocates in Fresno County has proposed changing the town’s name to Yokuts Valley; the term means “the people” to ancestral communities in the area, according to Roman Rain Tree, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumni tribes who has been helping lead the renaming effort.

Rain Tree is optimistic the town’s name will soon be changed. The federal movement has given his cause a boost, he said.

“We have been butting heads and getting nowhere” with Fresno County lawmakers, he said. “Now all of a sudden the issue has gotten a lot more attention.”

Gregory Thomas is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle & outdoors. Email: gthomas@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @GregRThomas

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