Supporters of the movement to change the name of Squaw Valley gather in front of the Hall of Records, before the Fresno County Board of Supervisors meeting Nov. 16, 2021.

Fresno County is getting ready to sue the state of California over a law they say oversteps local control.

On Tuesday, Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to sue the state of California over a 2022 law that requires the term “squaw,” which is widely considered a slur, to be removed from geographic features and place names throughout the state by 2025.

Supervisors Steve Brandau, Nathan Magsig, and Ernest ‘Buddy’ Mendes voted in favor of initiating litigation on Tuesday, which took place during a closed session, while Supervisors Brian Pacheco and Sal Quintero voted in opposition.

The vote took place a little over two months after a federal board voted to change the name of an east Fresno County foothills community from Squaw Valley to Yokuts Valley, following years of advocacy and a formal name change request that was spearheaded by Roman Rain Tree, a member of the local Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumni tribes.

In a video posted on Facebook, Magsig and Mendes announced the decision to sue the state over the law which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in 2022 — less than a year after the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland formally declared squaw to be a derogatory term. Haaland also set up a task force to have the term removed from over 650 places nationwide.

There are over 100 places in California with the term.

Magsig criticized both the federal and state name change processes, saying that residents of Yokuts Valley wanted their voices to be heard and didn’t want the name to be changed.

“The big issue,” he said in the video, “isn’t necessarily that particular name, but the whole process of hearing from the local community is really taken away.”

Mendes, on the other hand, compared the federal government’s name change process to both the Soviet regime and the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. He also said another name suggested in the process, Bear Mountain, could have better suited the local community.

Magsig said in an interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Tuesday afternoon that the county decided to go after the state instead of the federal government due to the specific requirements the new law will place on California counties. Some of these requirements include producing a list of places in the county with the term “squaw. “The county will no longer be able to spend money updating signage that refers to places that have the term “squaw” in it.

Places that would be affected by the legislation in the Fresno County community include a school, ambulance and fire stations, a cemetery, and a post office.

“We believe that those requirements really usurp our authority,” he said, “but also take away the voice of the local community and what their desires are.”

He also said the unincorporated Fresno County community — which has been renamed to Yokuts Valley as of January — is the only place in California that will be impacted by the state law.

“It’s one thing when you change a mountain or a lake, on state property or federal lands,” he said, “but (it’s another) when you require a community to change its name where there is no state or federal lands. It’s all private property.”

Magsig said he believes there is case law to support the county’s position. He also said he’s “not opposed” to filing a federal lawsuit in the future.

Quintero declined to comment on his decision to vote against initiating litigation but said there was a good discussion in the closed session. Pacheco couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

A spokesperson from the governor’s office declined to comment on the threatened litigation but said in an email statement that “racist and sexist slurs have no place in our public spaces.”

The new law, the spokesperson said, “builds on the Administration’s work to redress racist and exclusionary place names throughout the state in order to better reflect our values and ensure all our communities feel welcomed.”

Magsig said the county will file declaratory relief in the courts as soon as possible.

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

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