TAHOE CITY, Calif. (AP) — California’s popular Squaw Valley Ski Resort is considering changing its name to remove the word “squaw” — a derogatory term for Native American women — amid a national reckoning over racial injustice and inequality.
The word “squaw,” derived from the Algonquin language, may have once simply meant “woman,” but over generations, the word morphed into a misogynist and racist term to disparage indigenous women, said Vanessa Esquivido, a professor of American Indian Studies at California State University, Chico.
“That word is an epithet and a slur. It’s been a slur for a very long time,” said Esquivido.
When settlers arrived in the 1850s in the area where the Sierra Nevada mountain resort is now located, they first saw only Native American women working in a meadow. The land near Lake Tahoe was believed to have been given the name Squaw Valley by those early settlers.
But now the term is considered derogatory and even the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as an offensive term for a Native American woman.
“This ‘s’ word is a disparaging derogatory term. It’s literally in the dictionary, you can look it up. So if this is news to you, welcome,” said Caitlin Keliiaa, an assistant professor of feminist studies at University of California, Santa Cruz and a member of the Washoe Tribe.
Regional California tribes have asked for the name of Squaw Valley Ski Resort — which received international name recognition when it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics — to be changed numerous times over the years, with little success.
Helen Fillmore is a councilwoman on the Washoe Tribal Council, representing off-reservation tribal members.
“I’ve wanted to see it changed for a significant amount of time,” said Fillmore. “This was an ongoing conversation even when I was a child. So, over 20 years ago.”
“We know that there was a very extensive sex and slave trade going on in this area. So, when you connect that to a place that indicates where maybe Native women gathered, you understand that that could have been a term that people used to identify a place where they could quite literally take Native women,” explained Keliiaa.
Washoe Tribe Chairman Serrell Smokey said the name Squaw Valley is a constant reminder of efforts to disparage Native people. He’s in favor of the name change and suggested “Olympic Valley” as a replacement.
“The area is a part of American history with having the Olympics there that we do recognize also, and it would just be more fitting for it to be Olympic,” explained Smokey.
Squaw Valley President and CEO Ron Cohen said the resort is currently taking inventory of all the places where the name appears on and off the property, how much it would cost to change and what to prioritize if the change moves ahead.
Removing “squaw” from the resort name would be a lengthy and expensive process, Cohen said, as the name appears on hundreds of signs and is imprinted on everything from uniforms to vehicles.
Cohen, who took over as head of the resort two years ago, said the operators are also meeting with shareholders, including business and homeowners within the resort, as well as the local Washoe tribal leadership to get their input.
Cohen said he could not give a timeline on when a decision could be made.
The possible renaming of Squaw Valley Ski Resort is one of many efforts across the nation to address colonialism and indigenous oppression, including the removal of statues of Christopher Columbus, a symbol to many of European colonization and the death of Native people.
On Monday, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins announced the team is dropping the “Redskins” name and Native American head logo.
“It’s a great moment, really. And again, if you’re just learning this history, welcome, and let’s do something about it,” said Keliiaa.
“Just changing it, it would be a huge victory all across for native people all across the country,” said Smokey.