Taweah Garcia holds a sign supporting a campaign to change the name of Squaw Valley in Fresno County, California. Her sign includes a Native American symbol representing the four directions and people from all nations, she said. Credit: SHONNIE BEAR / Special to The Bee

What's at stake?

The vote on Thursday morning is the culmination of years of advocacy for the change.

After over two years of debate, the Fresno County community of Squaw Valley will be renamed. The new name for the census-designated place is Yokuts Valley.

The decision was made Thursday morning in a vote by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and was chosen based on feedback during the public comment period, according to a news release.

Yokuts translates to “people.”

In September, the Department of the Interior announced new names for nearly 650 places that featured the term “squaw,” which is widely considered to be an offensive slur against Native American/Indigenous women.

The country-wide name changes were prompted by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American woman to serve in the position — who in November 2021 formally declared the term “squaw” to be derogatory and ordered to have the name removed from federal lands.

However, the board took additional time to review seven populated locations, such as the Fresno County town. The BGN sought additional feedback from tribes, local communities and other stakeholders before the final vote.

“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,” Haaland said in the release on Thursday. “Together, we are showing why representation matters and charting a path for an inclusive America.”

Efforts to change the name of the Fresno County town of Squaw Valley picked up steam in recent years, led primarily by local Native American activists, some Squaw Valley residents, and groups such as the ACLU Northern California.

In January 2022, the “Change S Valley” coalition led by Roman Rain Tree, a member of the local Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumni tribes, submitted a formal name change proposal to the USBGN to request changing the name of Squaw Valley.

Similarly, in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law requiring the term be removed from California places by 2025.

​“What a great day to rejoice for Indigenous Americans and our non-Indigenous allies,” Rain Tree said in a statement to The Bee/Fresnoland. “This is a proud moment of acknowledgment and healing.”

He also said he recognized that the name change would be “a hard thing for many people,” but said he wanted “to go forward together with them as we make this a great community for all of us.”

“Today’s historic victory represents decades of work led by Indigenous people in Fresno County and across the nation to convey the harm that racist place names inflict on our communities,” Theodora Simon, Navajo, Indigenous justice advocate with the ACLU of Northern California said in a statement. “For over two hundred years, the stereotype of Indigenous women that the s-word conveys – as unfit mothers, disposable, available to be used and abused by settlers – has been used to excuse violence against them. It also justifies the forced removal of Indigenous children to boarding schools, indentured servitude, and today into the foster care and juvenile justice systems.”

Other populated placed that will see name changes following Thursday’s vote include Squaw Hill, California, which will be changed to Loybas Hill. The name proposed by the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians translates to “Young Lady” and honors the past, present and future Native women from and living in the area.

Squaw Gap in North Dakota will be Homesteaders Gap; Squawberry, Tenn., will be Partridgeberry; and Squaw Mountain, Texas, will be called Lynn Creek.

Local opposition to Squaw Valley name change

Not everyone was on board with the Fresno County name change.

County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, whose district includes Squaw Valley, has long argued that any name change should come from the local community, rather than via a state or federal mandate.

​“The name that they picked — I’m not aware the majority of the community wanted that name,” Magsig told The Bee/Fresnoland on Thursday.

He also wanted to know how many comments the BGN received in favor of Yokuts Valley and criticized the way the board made a decision without hosting a local meeting for residents’ input.

“The community really should get to decide what its name is going to be, not a board, not a commission,” he said. “The residents really have been left out of this whole process.”

The Bee/Fresnoland reached out to the Department of the Interior for a response.

Many residents of Squaw Valley and local mountain communities — including some Native American individuals — gathered last September in a meeting organized by Magsig to voice their opposition to the proposed name change. The meeting was marked by anger and frustration.

The following month, the county Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a resolution to formally oppose the name change. The resolution served as the county’s official response to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ request for feedback regarding the proposed name change of Squaw Valley.

“We’re proud of our community, we’re proud of our community name,” Lonnie Work, a resident of Squaw Valley and chairman of the Save Squaw Valley committee, said during public comment of the October meeting.

Other local places that had name changes

Name changes have already taken place throughout the region. Last September, six place names with the term “squaw” in their names changed.

Here are four places that received new names in Fresno County last fall:

  • Yokuts Basin replaces Squaw Valley (the basin, not the town of the same name)
  • Tubbe Paa Lake replaces Old Squaw Lake
  • Nüümü Hu Hupi replaces Squaw Lake
  • San Joaquin Butte replaces Squaw Leap, a cliff

New names as of last fall in Tulare and Mariposa counties include:

  • Scratch Creek replaces Squaw Creek, a stream in Tulare County
  • Leaning Pine Hill replaces Squaw Hill, a summit in Mariposa County

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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