Update August 25
Squaw-Alpine Meadows announced Tuesday, August 25 that it will be dropping “squaw” from its name because it is racist and sexist towards Native American women. The word also doesn’t originate from the Washoe people that historically inhabited the region.
“While we love our local history and the memories we all associate with this place as it has been named for so long, we are confronted with the overwhelming evidence that the term ‘squaw’ is considered offensive,” said Ron Cohen, president and COO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.
But the name won’t go away immediately. Resort authorities say a new name will be announced in 2021 after this ski season.
“While the resort name will change, this special place will always be the location of the 1960 Winter Olympics, the home of our beloved KT-22 chairlift, the place where extreme skiing pioneers changed the sport forever, and the treasured mountain home for so many people who revere this amazing ski resort.”
But even with positive memories of the past, Cohen says emotional attachment to the name doesn’t justify the continued “use of a word that is widely accepted to be a racist and sexist slur.”
A famous ski resort in the Tahoe region is considering changing its name because it derives from a derogatory term for Native American women. But it's just the most recent place in the Sierra that Indigenous people say need altering.
Perhaps the most well-known feature in all of the Sierra Nevada — Lake Tahoe — doesn't fully represent the Washoe tribe, says Herman Fillmore, culture/language resources director for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.
He says the modern name of Lake Tahoe is actually a mispronunciation of the Washoe word ‘Da ow,’ or lake. With that in mind, he says, the name Lake Tahoe is redundant.
“In our communities we don't often talk about it as derogatory or anything like that, we more just laugh at the kind of nonsense that it creates when combining two languages,” he said. “So to call something like ‘Da ow,’ or an anglicized version, Lake Tahoe, it's really just lake, lake.”
The Washoe idea or name for the lake evokes imagery of approaching the edge of the lake. That word is ‘Da ow aga.’ Fillmore says it pays reverence for the place that his people have spent thousands of years communing with. It’s the approach to a sacred place that gives them life.
A similar qualm is over a famous mountain in the region, Mount Tallac, which Fillmore says when translated means mountain, mountain. Other sources say Mount Tallac means “Great Mountain,” which is derived from the Washoe word Talah-act.
Lake Tahoe wasn’t always Lake Tahoe, either. It’s had a number of names. In the 1850s it was named Lake Bigler after John Bigler, the third governor of California. Tahoe historian Dave Antonucci says Bigler’s name was stripped from the lake because he entertained confederate sympathies.
“In 1862, Henry DeGroot, who was a federal mapmaker, changed the name to Tahoe with respect to the Native American name for the lake,” said Antonucci.
Also, the name of a city near Tahoe evokes anti-Indigenous sentiment, says Fillmore.
“Carson City itself is named after an infamous Indian killer,” he said. “That’s also a place that's very, very derogatory and very insensitive when you talk about indigenous people in the United States.”
The city is named after Kit Carson, who some lauded as one of America’s most famous frontier heroes, but other historians see him as an American Indian killer and a racist.
The Case To Rename The Ski Resort
The people who run Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Resort are considering changing its name by removing the word squaw or changing the name altogether. It’s a derogatory term or slur for Native American women.
Antonucci, the Tahoe-area historian, says the word could have just meant woman, but over time evolved to be used as language to demean women. He says one story of how the valley originally got its name is from when settlers first came upon it.
“Pioneers and settlers on their way west passed through the valley and saw that it was only populated by women and children,” he said. “Because the men were off hunting or doing other things, and so they named it Squaw Valley. That's mostly legend.”
But Fillmore, with the Washoe tribe, says there’s another issue with the word. It doesn’t have Washoe origins. It comes from the Algonquin language native to eastern Canada.
“It doesn't come from here and Washoe County, nor does it come from the Western United States, but kind of the colonizers and settlers who have expanded throughout and used it as a way to demean women,” he said. “That's why a lot of tribes find offense in it.”
The resort is well known around the world because it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Before the games, the town where the resort is changed its name to Olympic Valley.
Tribes in the region have asked for a name change for decades. Ron Cohen, the president of the resort, says his team is analyzing how much it would cost to rename the resort.
“We're in a national discussion about how things like names and other symbols matter,” he said. “[We need] to try to get as many people to understand the whole issue and to understand the issue in a way that's deeper than their immediate emotional reaction.”
Cohen says he is also talking with stakeholders and the Washoe tribe. He says a name change will likely be expensive, but not impossible.
“There's things that are easy to change, like digital billboards,” he said. “It's a multimillion-dollar effort, no question about it, to change the name. And, you know, it's not a reason not to do it.”
He says there isn’t a timeline for the name change, which would require the altering hundreds of signs, cars and uniforms.
“It's important to understand that it's not something that can be done overnight,” he said. “It will take a significant amount of planning and execution to change the name and change every manifestation of it across the resort.”
Changing The Name Of A Ridge
In 2018 a mountain feature was renamed Hungalelti Ridge (pronounced Hunga-Lel-Ti) from Squaw Ridge in Amador and Alpine counties. The new name was proposed by the Washoe Tribe and was supported by the U.S. Forest Service.
"We say "Hungalelti" when we are talking about people from "up there," meaning part of our traditional territory," said Washoe Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Darrel Cruz in a 2018 release. "The land and the people are very closely connected."
Hungalelti Ridge is located south of Highway 88, extending for about 6.5 miles along part of the northern border of the Mokelumne Wilderness in the Eldorado National Forest.
The process to rid the ridge of the name began in 2012 when a U.S. Forest Service policy on geographic names said the word is derogatory and should stop being used.
"The Washoe tribal members endured many decades of hearing this disrespectful term," said then-Forest Supervisor Laurence Crabtree. "We fully support their choice of an alternative name and believe this change was the right thing to do."
The Eldorado National Forest removed the name from use and consulted with tribal and local governments to find a new name. The Washoe Tribe submitted the proposed name to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
On April 12, 2018, the name Hungalelti Ridge was approved and was recorded in the Geographic Names Information System. According to that system there are more than 802 uses of the derogatory term in publicly named places and entities in the United States and 105 in California. This includes a peak not far from Olympic Valley.
“The Pronunciation Is ‘Da ow’”
All this matters, Fillmore says, because Lake Tahoe and the area around it is the center of the Washoe world.
“When we talk about it, it's not only just a source of food and sustenance and things like that, they really are sacred qualities to it,” he said. “There are very powerful places up there.”
And this points to a greater issue at hand: “One of the biggest things we have to talk about when we talk about Lake Tahoe is the actual removal of Washoe people from that place,” he added.
Fillmore says the tribe is often considered by agencies like the Forest Service in the region when decisions are being made, but he says as a people group with thousands of years of experience with the lake not enough is being done to include them.
“We would definitely like to see a lot more of our land returned,” he said. “We would like to see Washoe people to be put at the forefront of a lot of these conversations and for us to not always have to defend our beliefs for those things to kind of be accepted and understood.”
He said this could come in the form of a year-round reservation at Lake Tahoe, a cultural center and a permanent place at the table across government lines.
The Washoe people, he says, only have rights to two spots on the lake — Meeks Bay and Skunk Harbor — that represent less than five miles of shoreline.
If Fillmore could have his way he would at the very least have Lake Tahoe pronounced correctly.
“Seeing that kind of corrected, I mean, even if the spelling is the same, but people are able to understand that the pronunciation is ‘Da ow’ that would be something that is kind of historic for us,” he said.
Dave Antonucci, the Tahoe historian, says it would be tough to change such a widespread name like Tahoe.
“It probably would be hard to do because it is so broadly known by that and so many businesses, government agencies are known by that name,” he said. “I think we have to in this case, just have to be satisfied with the fact that even though the name Tahoe isn't exact, it still derives from the Native American word for the lake and is respectful in that regard, even though it's misspelled and mispronounced.”
But Fillmore with the tribe says honoring Indigenous people on all accounts where their rights, culture and perspective have been belittled needs to be taken seriously. He referred to the recent Supreme Court case declaring a huge portion of the eastern half of Oklahoma as an Indian reservation. This could stop state authorities from prosecuting Indigenous people there.
“They gave them back their jurisdiction and authority to manage those areas and I think that that's something that we need to think about as a whole across Indian Country,” he said.
Correction: After receiving a comment from a social media user about how we used the word in question we removed unnecessary uses of it out of this story.
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