‘Positive step forward’: California ski resort to change its name
California’s popular Squaw Valley Ski Resort will change its name because the word is a derogatory term for Native American women, officials announced Aug. 25.
The decision was reached after consulting with local tribes and extensive research into the etymology and history of the term “squaw," said Ron Cohen, president and COO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.
“While we love our local history and the memories we all associate with this place as it has been named for so long, we are confronted with the overwhelming evidence that the term ‘squaw’ is considered offensive,” Cohen said.
Washoe Tribal Chairman Serrell Smokey and Tribal Vice Chairman Rueben Vasquez appreciated the decision.
“The Washoe People have lived in the area for thousands of years. We have great reverence for our ancestors, history and lands. We are very pleased with this decision. Today is a day that many have worked towards for decades,” they said. “The Washoe Tribal Council recognizes the significance of the name change and on behalf of the Washoe people expresses its great appreciation for this positive step forward."
Work to find a new name will start immediately and is expected to be announced next year, Cohen said.
Regional California tribes have asked for the name of the resort to be changed numerous times over the years, with little success.
In 1960, the name of the valley itself was changed to “Olympic Valley” in honor of the Winter Olympics held that year at the famed resort.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is part of the Alterra Mountain Company. This large corporation owns a dozen other resorts in the United States and Canada, controlled by KSL Capital Partners, an $8.2 billion private equity firm. Alterra also owns Mammoth Mountain ski resort and Big Bear ski resort in California.
In the Tahoe area there are several businesses that use the s-word as part of their advertising logo including Patagonia. Thousands of tourists each year buy merchandise featuring the s-word, which they wear and give as gifts to family and friends.
The s-word is a misunderstood use of the Algonquin word, “asquawya” and the Mohawk word, “otiskwa.” The word itself did not originate with White settlers who came into the Tahoe area, as many believe. It became a slang word used by the first French fur traders and trappers for the Hudson Bay Company during the 1600s. Then the British, and all the subsequent immigrants, who settled in the Northeast.
Native women became easy prey as they expanded west to quench their thirst for even more land and resources. The word was used to describe a Native woman whenever the settlers and immigrants wanted to have sex. It literally translated as a derogatory term for a Native woman’s genitalia. The term then became not only a name for a body part, but for having sex with any Native woman they could degrade via rape.
An 1850s autobiography of General George Crook noted, “It was not an infrequent occurrence for an Indian male to be shot in cold blood, or a squaw to be raped.”
Women are traditionally held in the highest esteem by Native people throughout the United States and Canada because they are the life-givers. Tribal nations in the Northeast, like the Haudenosaunee, are matrilineal, and women hold and exercise real political power. It is the clan mothers who decide who the leaders will be and hold the power to remove from office those they deem unfit to lead. Often they have the final say on when and where to go to war with other groups.
One name change example comes from Pat Oakes, the first cousin of the late Richard Oakes of the “Indians of All Tribes” during the occupation of Alcatraz Island for 19 months from 1969-71.
Pat Oakes, whose traditional name is Kanonkwashon, was successful, along with a group of activists, in changing the name of Squaw Valley in New York.
She was involved with a group of activists trying to get place names and road names changed. Her group wanted to change the name of a road from “Lame Squaw” to something less violent and racist.
“When asked what the name actually meant to us, I told them that it was a horribly racist, sexist term that basically refers to an Indian woman’s vagina. When the V.P. heard and understood that, he was shocked. His reaction was, ‘Oh no, we have been using that name for at least 50 years and didn’t really know what it meant.’ We all consulted further, and the name was changed to ‘Unity Road,” she said.
She explained that it originated from French fur trappers who worked for the Hudson Bay Company.
“As they traveled through the Northeast, they would rape young girls and force them to travel as their literal sex slaves across the country. New York first had to endure contact with the Dutch, then the French, and finally the English. Each group treated our young women in the same way, using the term ‘squaw’ for us,” she said.
It continued into the 1950s with the John Wayne films and other forms of media that still exist in the 21st century, she said.
“No more. It must stop now,” Pat Oakes said.
Another example of an actor working in films for most of her life is Sacheen Littlefeather.
Littlefeather, Apache, stepped in Marlon Brando’s place at the Academy Awards in 1973. She delivered a short speech on his behalf about why he was refusing the award that particular year for his work in “The Godfather.” He was protesting treatment of the Lakota people by the federal government in South Dakota.
Littlefeather was blackballed and denied a living as an actress in Hollywood for the remainder of her life for her belief that Native Americans were (and are) tired of racist slurs, stereotypes, and basically the lack of exposure in all media forms and education.
“The term ‘squaw’ is a most hateful word used to hurt and degrade our people. It is hurled against our women by anglo-saxon, racist English speaking men and even women out of complete ignorance of our languages and our way of life. Using the term ‘squaw’ is an ultimate insult to not only American Indian women, but men as well because our Indian men also are born from our mothers," Littlefeather said.
“All mothers are to be respected at all times, and are held sacred in our traditions. When you think of White Buffalo Calf Woman of the Lakota or the White Shell Woman of the Apache, or when you think about Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (Mohawk and first American Indian to be named a Saint by the Catholic Church) the term ‘squaw’ is in no way applicable. It was a name given to Native American women in order to use us as sexual slaves and objects without regard or respect for our gender as human beings,” she said.
As a Lenape man, Titus Frenchman, from Delaware now living in Oklahoma, is “offended and angry” when he hears the word.
“It is an insult to every male in my tribe and every other tribe. The Lenape mindset is that we don’t use that thought or word,” Frenchman said. “Europeans never used terms of description that lifted us up. They used words that put us down, made us lower than themselves and still do that to this day. It should be removed from dictionaries, place names, ski resorts, and anywhere that word is used.”
Frenchman graduated from the University of California in Davis in 1996 in applied community behavioral sciences, community development, and Native American studies. From 1982-1992 he produced and hosted a radio program entitled “Living On Indian Time” for KPFA and the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Pat Oakes, Littlefeather, and Frenchman agreed that the s-word has contributed to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls still experienced by tribes today. The highway that leads into Canada from Montana or Wyoming has been dubbed the new “Trail of Tears” due to this epidemic.
The renaming is one of many efforts across the nation to address colonialism and Indigenous oppression, including the removal of statues of Christopher Columbus, a symbol to many of European colonization and the death of Native people.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.