Newsom signs law removing ‘squaw’ across California. What it means for Squaw Valley

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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a state bill on Friday, California Native American Day, that will remove the word “squaw,” now widely considered a slur, from California places by 2025.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, Assembly Bill 2022 should impact the rural Fresno County town of Squaw Valley.

This “racist and sexist term” will be “removed from all geographic features and place names in the state, and a process to review petitions to change offensive or derogatory place names will be created,” a news release issued by the Governor’s Office states.

“This comes on the heels of federal action this month to complete the removal of this slur from nearly 650 geographic features across the country, including several name changes advanced by California based on extensive tribal engagement,” the statement continues. “The Newsom Administration has launched a series of ongoing actions to identify and redress discriminatory names of features attached to the State Parks and transportation systems.”

The law also follows a two-year campaign to change the name of Squaw Valley, led by a local Native American man, Roman Rain Tree. Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig led the first public meeting in Squaw Valley earlier this week about renaming proposals, which were largely rebuffed by an angry crowd.

More than 100 California places contain the S-word, said Assemblymember James Ramos of Southern California, who introduced the new law along with the chair of California’s Legislative Women’s Caucus, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia. The bill has 13 coauthors, including Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno. AB 2022 was unanimously passed by state legislators last month.

“It is an idiom that came into use during the westward expansion of America, and it is not a tribal word,” Ramos wrote of the S-word in a news release. “For decades, Native Americans have argued against the designation’s use because behind that expression is the disparagement of Native women that contributes to the crisis of missing and murdered people in our community.”

AB 2022 is among seven new laws signed by Newsom on Friday related to American Indian communities, the majority of them authored by Ramos, the first California Native American elected to the state’s legislature. One of those is AB 1314, which enables a “Feather Alert,” similar to an Amber and Silver alert, to assist in the search for missing Native American people.

The signing of AB 2022 came the same day the governor declared Sept. 23, 2022 Native American Day in California, and followed the day’s 55th annual celebration, held on the steps of the state Capitol. Its scheduled speakers included Ramos and Tribal Affairs Secretary Christina Snider of the Governor’s Office of Tribal Affairs. Newsom released a written statement as the event was underway.

“Our path forward demands that we replace systems and symbols of oppression with a new vision of California that appreciates, as a baseline, the unique cultures and histories of the first people of this place and reflects the diversity and contributions of all peoples who now call California home,” Newsom said in the statement about Native American Day.

“Over the course of the last year, we have strived in partnership with California Native peoples to transform the state and our collective culture in ways that many could only dream of. We have worked with tribal nations to restore ancestral names and cultural practices to many of the places where Native people have lived, survived and thrived in since time immemorial.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how AB 2022 will impact a federal review of Squaw Valley’s name by the Interior Department and U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The federal agencies announced this month that they removed the word “squaw” from nearly 650 geographic features, but not the town of Squaw Valley and six other populated unincorporated places. They are conducting an additional federal review of those seven place names because there are “unique concerns” regarding their renaming.

California law AB 2022 and Squaw Valley

The bill has various benchmark dates to be met along the way to changing “squaw” names by Jan. 1, 2025.

If the “local governing body fails to recommend a replacement,” the law states the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names — established by the Natural Resources Agency to be a liaison to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names — will need to choose replacements, “under its discretion, and in consultation with advisory bodies.”

Magsig said his office mailed 1,400 questionnaires this week to Squaw Valley households to give residents of the town a chance to suggest new names. He’s planning to present the findings at an Oct. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting. Magsig previously asked Newsom to veto AB 2022, saying the bill lacked local input.

The law requires tribes be consulted about the name changes, too, including those that are not federally recognized and listed by the California Native American Heritage Commission.

In Squaw Valley, places that would be affected by the legislation include a school, ambulance and fire stations, a cemetery and a post office.

Squaw Valley, Fresno County after a dusting of snow in February 2013.
Squaw Valley, Fresno County after a dusting of snow in February 2013.

The law says the California Constitution “requires the state to reimburse local agencies and school districts for certain costs mandated by the state.” Magsig said during the Squaw Valley meeting that he doesn’t know if the state will pay for related costs incurred by residents for things like updating vital records. Rain Tree hopes local leaders will help create an online fund to assist residents with related costs if needed.

“No geographic feature or place name in the State of California should have a name that includes racial and sexual slurs and stereotypes targeting Native Americans, which perpetuate prejudice, disparage racial minorities, and contribute to the current crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people,” the law states.

AB 2022 states the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names can also submit requests to its federal counterpart, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, to render decisions on proposed name changes.

The law doesn’t mention business names. It describes “geographic features” as any publicly owned structure in the state, including navigable waters, geographic features, parks, state and local roads, bridges, and publicly owned buildings. It describes a “place” as any natural geographic feature or street, alley, or other road “within the jurisdiction of the state or political subdivision of the state.”

The law doesn’t explicitly say town names would be covered. But it can be implied, since it directs agencies and local governing bodies to work to find new place names, said Maria Lopez, communications director for Ramos’ office.

What could the Fresno County town’s new name be?

Yokuts Valley is the preferred new name for the town of Squaw Valley in the name change proposal Rain Tree sent to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names earlier in January. It was revised from a previous request to call it Nuum Valley, which means “the people” in the Mono language, Rain Tree said.

The physical basin of Squaw Valley was renamed to Yokuts Basin earlier this month by the Interior Department. Yokuts is a regional term that encompasses many traditional tribes.

Rain Tree said an activity center connected to Squaw Valley’s library in the small town denied a recent request from him to lead an educational program there about Yokuts, in addition to denying his request to use the space last year to hold a meeting about a name change.

Many residents at the meeting held this week by Magsig defiantly proclaimed that the town’s name should remain Squaw Valley. There was almost no discussion during that meeting about what a new name could be.

Kenneth Woodrow, chairman of the Wuksachi tribe, said an indigenous word for a traditional village in the Squaw Valley area is related to the bear, and that the town’s library, Bear Mountain, isn’t far off from it. He said his great-grandmother was born there.

Rain Tree called the signing of AB 2022 the beginning of a healing process for Mother Earth, and all Native American women, girls and their families.

The campaign Rain Tree started, Rename S-Valley, Fresno County, was listed by Ramos as a sponsor of AB 2022 along with several other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Ramos’ long list of bill supporters includes the Tachi Yokut Tribe and Tule River Tribe from the Valley.

“Thank you Assemblymember Ramos for authoring this much needed piece of legislation,” Rain Tree continued. “Thank you Gov. Newsom. And thank you Assemblymember Arambula for making time to listen to me.”

Roman Rain Tree with his daughter, Lola, in front of the town sign for Squaw Valley in Fresno County, California.
Roman Rain Tree with his daughter, Lola, in front of the town sign for Squaw Valley in Fresno County, California.