Removing ‘Squaw’ from Tahoe’s Washoe Lands

Episode 73 | September 17, 2020

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Transcript

When Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, called the Squaw Valley Public Service District the morning of Aug. 26, he got a pleasant surprise: “Hello,” said the automated voice. “Thank you for calling the Olympic Valley Public Service District.”

Not even 24 hours before, the public service district’s board had unanimously voted to change its name from Squaw Valley to Olympic Valley, the latest in what would be a line of local organizations, corporations, and businesses vying to remove “squaw” from their titles. Even the “Keep Squaw True” movement, which is a Sierra Watch campaign, is seeking a new name.

I’m Alex Hoeft, the voice behind today’s Moonshine Minutes.

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Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows helped spark the name change movement when it publicized a decision to move away from the word in mid-June, citing it as a derogatory and offensive term toward Native American women. Resort staff had already been discussing such a change internally, explained president and chief operating officer Ron Cohen, but when a Sacramento Bee reporter reached out to see if the word would be pulled, things sped up.

It’s an action the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada has been advocating off and on for about 15 years, says Chairman Serrell Smokey. Different leaders would bring it up, then the idea would fall dormant with their departures. Yet elders within the tribe carried on the dream of removing the word from Washoe lands.

Smokey avoided actual use of the word squaw in his conversation with Moonshine, though he did describe its offense to Native American people. Military folk, he said, as late as the Civil War time period adopted terms to dehumanize the enemy.

He said, “This word was one of the original ones that was used. It made it easier to not view someone as a human being and not view them as a woman. They were property; you could do whatever you want, push them out, abuse them.”

Though the new ski resort name won’t be announced until after the 2020/21 winter season is over, the publicity has had a trickling down effect on the resort’s neighbors.

The Resort at Squaw Creek, Squaw Alpine Transit Company, and Squaw Valley Lodge all plan to look into a name change, though some are waiting to see what Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows decides on before they make their own decisions.

Mike Willette, local resident as well as past president and current board member of the Squaw Valley Property Owners Association, said, “I think once the ball rolls on this thing … everybody’s going to fall in line. Nobody’s going to maintain the name Squaw Valley if we change the name of the community.”

The community is already recognized as Olympic Valley by the U.S. Postal Service because a census-designated community in Fresno County is known officially as Squaw Valley, but utilizing the word ‘Olympic’ in business or agency titles brings into play legal questions, as it’s trademarked by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. The public service district informed Moonshine it’s confirming whether the adoption of Olympic Valley in its title is legal.

Cohen said his team at the resort isn’t going to pick the easiest option. Rather, “we’re going to do it deliberately and carefully and we’re going to find a name that really reflects who we are and who our people are and what they love about this place.”

Once a new name is selected, then comes the domino effect of updating tangibles. The public service district released a list of everything that needs to change to reflect its new title, including signage, fire department equipment, and social media platforms, but there’s no official estimate yet for what the cost means for taxpayers. The majority of expenses will be for staff time, the district says.

The resort, on the other hand, has a considerably larger list though it, too, won’t have a hard estimate ready until the name change is officially revealed.

Cohen said, “Our name’s all over everything and there’s literally millions of pieces of Squaw Valley collateral around the world because we’ve been selling it for 70 years … It’s going to be millions of dollars to change that.”

Despite the potentially hefty price tag, he said the company is committed to the cause.

“We’re doing this. It’s going to cost what it costs. We accepted that cost when we made the decision, as part of making the decision … When you’re dealing with a question of ethics and morality, to just weigh it against a commercial balance is not the right approach.”

Some people, meanwhile, are resistant to the change. Sal Lucia, a resident in the valley who submitted in writing his opposition to the public service district, told Moonshine in an email: “Given the cancel culture thinking of the day, everyone is so quick to be offended. History doesn’t matter and everyone is judged by the standards of the moment. Maybe one day philandering and plagiarism will become the cause of the day. Will we then erase [Martin Luther King, Jr.] and disregard his contributions? One could even be offended by using the proposed moniker Olympic by asserting that this celebrates ancient Greek traditions, and someone will be quick to point out that they practiced slavery.”

Lucia isn’t the only one who’s pointed to an erasure of history with the name change — another homeowner in the valley wrote in to the public service district to oppose the decision; Cohen said he’s seen many social media comments expressing dislike; and several Moonshine readers shared their dismay online, but Washoe Chairman Smokey said he doesn’t see removing the word as erasing the area’s history.

“It’s recognizing what it was and getting people to know we don’t want that part of history lost even though it was a bad time … It’s historical trauma that’s passed down from generation to generation. That’s what it represents and that’s why it needs to be changed but also recognized. We can’t fix a problem if we don’t recognize that there is one.”

The name change isn’t limited to businesses and organizations — roads and landscape features are being considered, too, which has been happening across the continent for decades.

Successful removal of “squaw” from other titles around North America extend at least as far back as 1988 when Squaw Rapids Dam in Canada was renamed to E.B. Campbell Dam. Closer to home, in April 2018, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names approved the renaming of Squaw Ridge in Amador and Alpine counties to Hungalelti Ridge, a word proposed by the Washoe Tribe.

Any person or organization can request that the board issues a formal name change, regardless of public or private affiliation.

Placer County will lead the changing of public road, park, and directional map names in the local valley. Cindy Gustafson, district five supervisor for Placer, said staff has heard from the tribe and others on such matters, but movement to change out signage won’t take place until after the resort has made its decision so that efforts are complementary rather than confusing.

Smokey told Moonshine anything that can have squaw removed from its title, the tribe is all for it. He knows it won’t happen overnight and he’s happy it’s starting, but he’s also not going to walk away until every ‘t’ is crossed.

“Just because they said they were going to change the name doesn’t mean the name’s changed yet. They can’t just leave this dormant as if we won. It’s not over ‘til it’s over.

Until those letters are actually taken down and something else is up there, then we can celebrate.”

The full piece is on our website, at moonshineink.com. There, you can find more background information, plus a map from 1867 marking the valley as Squaw Valley.

That’s all for today. Stay out of the smoke and keep Tahoe smart.

 

 

 

 

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