The U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted 4-2 to change the name of Squaw Valley, the town of over 3,000 people in Fresno County, to Yokuts Valley on Thursday, following several years of debate over the name.
Squaw Valley in Fresno County, along with many other place names in California with the word squaw in it, including the famed Squaw Valley Ski Resort which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1960, have long been challenged on the use of the word “squaw” due to the derogatory intent toward Native American women. While there have been efforts in past decades to change the name, removal of the word “squaw” from various places found a renewed push in the mid 2010’s following several racial violence incidents nationwide and in 2020 following the George Floyd incident, which led to, among other racial justice efforts, the removal of statues of certain historical figures, the renaming of buildings, and the renaming of towns.
In California, some locations and businesses have changed their name, including Confederate Corners to Springtown in 2018, and the Squaw Valley Ski Resort to Palisades Tahoe in 2021. Other places, such as the city of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County, which is named after a Confederate General, currently have a name change in the works, but have yet to agree on a name.
Fresno County’s Squaw Valley underwent a slightly different route to renaming. After the George Floyd incident, Native tribes stepped up their efforts to have the name changed, first proposing Nuum Valley in 2020, and then Yokuts Valley in 2021. Yokuts was chosen as the name as it refers to an ethnic group of 60 tribes from the Central Valley and the name itself meaning “people,” avoiding any potential clash over the name.
Pressure quickly grew for the name change in the ensuing two years. Local groups began demanding the name change, the Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland announced that the word “squaw” be removed from all federal lands due to it’s racist connotation in November 2021, and Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2022 into law last September, which will eliminate the use of the word squaw from all place names in California by 2025. Later that month, the Board on Geographic Names formally renamed the surrounding area Yokuts Basin from Squaw Basin, further cementing the urgency of the name change situation. With the clock now ticking, steps were quickly made to renaming the city.
Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig asked for feedback over a name change from 1,400 households in the area and instituted meetings to discuss the name change, the latter of which led to charged debate from members of the public. Local tribes were also asked about the name change. With local residents split on the issue, with many wanting to keep the name and others wanting it changed but not to Yokuts Valley, the name decision was looking at a likely decision in the next few years. However, it only turned out to be the next few months, as the Board of Geographic Names went ahead with the name change to Yokuts Valley on Thursday.
Praise, displeasure over new name
Many praised the name change on Thursday, including Roman Rain Tree, a Native American who led the “Change S Valley” movement.
“What a great day to rejoice for Indigenous Americans and our non-Indigenous allies,” said Rain Tree on Thursday. “This is a proud moment of acknowledgment and healing. I know the name change would be a hard thing for many people, but we wanted to go forward together with them as we make this a great community for all of us.”
The name change also drew federal attention, with Interior Secretary Haaland saying in a statement that “I am grateful to the members of the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force and the Board on Geographic Names for their efforts to finalize the removal of this harmful word. Together, we are showing why representation matters and charting a path for an inclusive America.”
However, the name change wasn’t well received by everyone. Supervisor Magsig criticized the decision on Thursday, arguing that the name change should have come from the community and not through a mandate that picks a name the majority of community members don’t want.
“The name that they picked — I’m not aware the majority of the community wanted that name,” added Magsig. “The community really should get to decide what its name is going to be, not a board, not a commission. The residents really have been left out of this whole process.”
Many town residents also noted displeasure on how the change came about.
“The name was problematic, and like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, times have changed and the name needed to go,” said Squaw Valley resident Michael Hartford to the Globe on Friday. “But we all wanted a name other than Yokuts Valley. A lot of indians here actually have a problem with it because they said the term was kind of invented by settlers, and that they use their individual tribe rather than Yokuts when describing themselves. So that’s an issue. But more than that, they didn’t even ask us on what other names we wanted, and there were some creative ones there. That was really the issue. It’s not that they did it, which, yes, some people in town did want to keep the name but it wasn’t that many. It was that they kind of chose the name for us.
“If there is any silver lining, at least no one will be confusing us with that Tahoe ski place anymore. You wouldn’t believe how often that happened.”
The name change is expected to be reflected on official maps and other geographic means soon.
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