Squaw Valley Discussing Name Change With Indigenous Leaders

Jul 21, 2020

Editor's Note: This story has been updated. The original version referred to Squaw Valley Ski Resort throughout the article even though the name change would impact the entire company of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.

In the weeks since the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, there’s been a broad reckoning with various kinds of racism in the U.S. This cultural shift has led some government, businesses and community members across the county to take down or rename landmarks with ties to various kinds of racism.

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Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows executives are again considering dropping ‘squaw’ from its name--a title that has drawn criticism for years from some Indigenous leaders.

It was the site of the 1960 Olympic Games, one of the first to be broadcast on television. It was an innovative event.

According to the International Olympic Committee, it was the first to build a Winter Olympic village and spur the invention of the instant replay on TV. Walt Disney produced the opening and closing ceremonies.

However, the word ‘squaw’ is a racist and misogynistic slur. And over the past couple of decades, tribal members and activists have been pushing for the the resort to drop the slur from its name, but the company chose to keep the name.

In late June, the Sacramento Bee reported that resort executives are reviewing the company’s use of the term, and inviting local Indigenous leaders and stakeholders to discuss the possibility of a name change. Resort President and CEO Ron Cohen said resort executives are having discussions with the community.

“We get emails, right, just to our general resort email box expressing [an] opinion you know, you should change it, you shouldn't change it. That sort of thing,” Cohen said. “We get calls to our general voicemail saying those things, I see social media posts carrying out a debate.”

Vincent Schilling is an associated editor with Indian Country Today who has written about the origins and meanings of the word. He said there’s some debate about the origins of the slur; some note it’s likely a derivative of the Algonquin word ‘esqua,’ which means young woman.

“But then there are also other possible connections to the word, which is a Mohawk [word for] ‘ojiskwa,’ which means vagina,” Schilling said. “And they say there’s no derogatory meaning.” However, Schilling said the word was appropriated by non-Native people, and used in a disparaging and sexually connotative way against Indigenous women.

“Squaw was synonymous with the dirtiest words for female anatomy, that I won't use for purposes of being respectful,” Schilling said. “And I think you'd understand that one of the words starts with the letter C.”

Helen Fillmore is a tribal member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, who lives in Gardnerville.

“I feel disrespected when I hear it, I feel terrible,” she said. Hearing the word, she said, makes her feel extremely uncomfortable.

“When you tell people that you live in Reno or that, you know, you can talk about the weather and then snow comes up and then all of a sudden people are asking if you ski and telling you about how they're going to go, ski racial slur. Let's go ski, racial slur,” Fillmore said. "People don't even think twice about how that word is impacting the person they're talking to.”

Ray Bacasegua Valdez is the director of the American Indian Movement of Northern Nevada Chapter and is a member of the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians, and also a dad.

“I have girls and I wouldn't, I would never disrespect them. And, you know, use that name,‘squaw’ like that. Oh, you're my squaw,” Bacasegua Valdez said. “I mean, it's like you're less than human. I mean, you can, you can dissect it, how you want. But where it stands today, it's... you know. It's disrespectful for us.”

The name was adopted in the mid-19th century as settlers moved into the valley north of Lake Tahoe, where they found Washoe women and children upon arrival. That’s according to Edward B. Scott, who wrote the 1957 book The Saga of Lake Tahoe.

But Squaw Valley isn’t the official name of the area anymore--it’s just the name of the ski resort. Here’s President and CEO Ron Cohen again.

“In 1960, there was a decision to bring a post office into the Valley. And there's already a place in California called Squaw Valley. It's on the westside, outside of Fresno,” Cohen said. “And so when the post office came in, it was determined that the area couldn't use the name Squaw Valley from a postal perspective. And so it was given the name Olympic Valley.”

Some local tribal members see a name like ‘Olympic Valley Ski Resort’ as an ideal switch to make, as it honors the unique history of the resort. Others disagree. “A place like Squaw Valley that has a dedicated regional following. You know, those people, they have landmarks [and] milestones throughout their life that they tie to that place. It's, it's really meaningful,” Cohen said. “And so when you think about changing the name of a place like that, it can really touch on people's emotions. And so I think that that probably plays a big part in, you know, why the name was retained.”

Last October, the Reno City Council voted to drop Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day, a holiday that celebrates Native American peoples, rather than honor a figure that for many represents a violent history of colonization in North America. Ray Bacasegua Valdez says the American Indian Movement of Northern Nevada was behind this push, which was years in the making. He says that experience taught the group lessons that they are applying to the resort’s possible name change.

“And we stayed prayerful. We sat back, we massage it. We waited, we waited, we waited. Boom. So the point I'm trying to make is massaging it,” Bacasegua Valdez said. “You don't give up. We, you can quote me on this. We will never give up.”

Resort CEO Ron Cohen says that the company will soon announce a decision on the future of the resort’s name.