How can I write this article without saying it? For the purposes of expressing my opinions here and for absolute clarity, I am talking about the word squaw (as in the valley formerly known as). I would also like to point out that not all my friends still say that word; many have eliminated it. But enough of them do that it comes up in conversations often. From what I’ve noticed, the norm is to just keep saying the word like it doesn’t matter. It really needs to stop.
This month marks two years since the ski resort changed its name to Palisades Tahoe, yet people still say squaw for many reasons (none of them any good). The more extreme, angry rebels declare they will never change and throw it in the faces of anyone who challenges them. I don’t think I can move these people. My friends are somewhere in the middle. They are a confused bunch. On the one hand, some do not fully understand why you cannot say squaw anymore, or think it’s too hard to change. On the other hand, some hate the new name so much that they think they are justified in not using it. Some also believe that the move was just a corporate driven, self-interested decision by Alterra to rebrand and remarket to Palisades Tahoe. I can only emphasize that this is beside the point, and certainly not an excuse to remain steadfast with your vocabulary.
“Maybe if they named it something easier, something we liked, it would be easier to change,” one friend said. “I’ve said it my whole life, it is really hard not to,” said another. “Whatever,” has also been a recurring attitude or expression declaring that it doesn’t really matter. I am here to tell my friends two things: it is not hard to change, and it does matter.
I feel like the only chance of getting through to people is to keep it short when discussing why it matters. It matters because that’s what the indigenous people of Tahoe want. The Wašiw (Washoe) tribe had been trying to change the name for 25 years because of its offensive and derogatory nature toward indigenous women. Just because you never knew that, or you are in denial about it, does not mean it isn’t true. Given our violent history of colonization in America, you would think people in the 21st century could be more willing to recognize and accept that history, to do the right thing. This is all you need to know to motivate yourself to change.
I am here to tell you that it is not hard and with just a little awareness and practice, you can stop using the word “squaw.” We just survived the winter of 2022/23, can’t we do anything we put our minds to? If you mess up and the word slips out, just apologize and let everyone know you are still working on it. Practice not saying the word with the intent to eliminate it from your vocabulary moving forward. If you struggle with replacements, try Olympic Valley when talking about the place, and Palisades when talking about the ski area and its surroundings. I struggled briefly with transitioning myself because of habit, but honestly, once I made a commitment to stop saying it, there was no struggle. You must at least try.
The deed is done now. The signs continue to be changed and the community is practicing and adjusting. The time for making excuses is over. Educate yourself more if you need to, as the information is readily available. I want to thank my friends for allowing me to express my opinions at their expense. My purpose is not to shame or patronize, but only to tell you all at once, just stop it.
~ Whitney Foehl is a long-time resident of the Lake Tahoe area. She spent her career as a high school history teacher and is currently the librarian and media specialist at Incline High School. When she isn’t playing in the mountains, she enjoys reading, making art, and seeing live music with friends.