Indigenous group approaches Federal Council to rename Squaw Valley

Roman Rain Tree’s mother was gravely ill with cancer when asked if she thought their Native American tribe would gain federal recognition while their ancestral homeland in Fresno County had a name many consider offensive.

Gina Charley said no but challenged her son: “If you think you can change it, then show them the pen is mightier than the sword,” Rain Tree said on Friday.

Although the 2013 conversation was one of the last – Charley passed away the following month – Rain Tree was inspired to fight to change the name of Squaw Valley, Calif., A town of about 3,600 people.

On January 1, Rain Tree – on behalf of the coalition Rename County to S-Valley Fresno – submitted a name change proposal to the Board on Geographic Names, a federal agency responsible for naming geographic locations. About two months earlier, in November, Home Secretary Deb Haaland declared the term “squaw” pejorative and asked the board of directors to implement procedures to remove the name from federal use. Under the orders of the secretariat, a working group was also established to find alternate names for geographic features on federal lands with the name.

Rain Tree, a resident of Fresno, has ties to the Dunlap Mono Indian Band and Choinumni tribe, both indigenous to the valley, and spent his summers with his grandparents in the area.

But he said the land was tainted with the term “squaw,” which Rain Tree called “the equivalent of the” C word, “but specific to indigenous women. Nuum Valley is the proposed new name, although Rain Tree has said it could be adjusted. “Nuum” means “the people” in the Western Mono language.

Even within a larger cultural conversation examining place names, the term “squaw” has come under special scrutiny.

“The term has always been used as an offensive ethnic, racial and gender-based insult, especially to indigenous women,” the US Department of the Interior said. said in a press release.

Several states have banned the use of the term in place names, including Montana, Oregon, Maine, and Minnesota. In September, the historic Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe changed its name after its owners acknowledged the name to be offensive. Still, the name is spread across the country. There were 650 federal “ground units” bearing the name when Haaland’s secretarial orders were issued in the fall.

Rain Tree appealed to federal officials after pushing local leaders to resume the conversation for more than a year. These local leaders, he said – targeting Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig – have largely given him “the cold shoulder.” He first contacted Magsig staff in the summer of 2020.

Magsig, who represents the valley, said he was not opposed to a name change but wanted the effort to come from local residents and tribesmen, calling Rain Tree and some of his supporters his coalition of “foreigners”. (A petition on Change.org calling for officials changing the name garnered more than 35,250 signatures.) The supervisor, elected to the board in 2016, also called Haaland’s directive a “mistake” because of its overly broad approach.

“What makes something hateful is the context and the way the heart of the person is, who is making these statements,” Magsig said, adding that he had found no evidence that the name of the valley – which he said was potentially given over 120 years ago – has been generated. in wickedness.

Conversations about the name change made him “a little apprehensive,” he said, comparing the movement to the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

“What do we solve by changing the names today? Does that make us a more united people? Or does it divide us more? ” he said. “I want to focus on those things that really unite us, both locally and regionally.”

Shirley Guevara, vice president of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, supports the initiative as an individual “as an elder and a woman”, but there has been no broad consensus within the tribal council that Guevara , 71, chalk to complacency with “the local hierarchy”.

Guevara lives in the nearby town of Dunlap, an area which she said included the valley, and said the name Squaw Valley reminded her of old Western TV shows such as “The Lone Ranger,” in which Native Americans – especially women – were treated badly.

“Squaws were worse than dogs – [who] could be used and traded, killed and slaughtered, and therefore a squaw had no value, ”Guevara said of the performances.

Guevara’s daughter Taweah Garcia, 45, said the term “dehumanizing” is still used today and its presence in place names keeps not only derogatory language alive but also racist attitudes and actions. .

“We have to do it for future generations, we have to do it for our ancestors. We have to do this for all of our relationships – the four directions, ”Garcia, also a resident of Dunlap, said of the name change. “If not now when?”

The valley, Garcia said, is part of their tribe’s ancestral homeland, but estimates the area has around 11 or 12 names with the offending term that needs to be changed.

The coalition supporting the name change and Magsig are at an impasse on how to move forward at the local level. The supervisor said he called on Rain Tree and his supporters to set up a meeting with the valley residents, offering them a public space. Rain Tree wants Magsig to spearhead the meeting, arguing that it’s the chosen one’s job and that he has more resources to maintain a safe environment for COVID.

Meanwhile, the coalition is now engaged in a “waiting game,” Rain Tree said, as federal officials review the proposal. The final decision is expected to take several months, and potentially up to a year, “given the high level of interest in this issue,” said Alex Demas, spokesperson for the US Geological Survey.

As part of the process, the Geographical Names Board will seek input from the Fresno County Oversight Board, the California Geographical Names Advisory Committee and the 574 federally recognized tribes, Demas said in an email.


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