George Floyd’s killing this past spring has sparked battles throughout the country, particularly around places and things that evoke historical injustices and inequalities, like statues of Confederate leaders. But there are also clashes throughout North America around an often-used word that many don’t know is a racial slur: “squaw.”
That’s beginning to change now as places like Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in California's Sierra mountains are taking action to stop using the term.
“We’re probably the most well-known place with that name,” said Ron Cohen, CEO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. The resort was named by the first white settlers who stumbled into the valley; they met a group of Native American women the settlers called squaws, and so they named it Squaw Valley. The consensus among Indigenous people today is that the term is a sexual slur that demeans and dehumanizes Indigenous women.
Roughly a hundred years later, the world gathered in the same spot for the 1960 Winter Olympics. Squaw Valley was transformed into an elegant ski resort that, afterward, attracted generations of families.
“Our guests — their grandparents skied here, their grandparents took their parents to learn to ski here when they were little kids,” Cohen said. “Those parents grew up and brought their kids here to learn to ski.”
Some people are attached to the resort’s name because it’s connected to so many family memories, Cohen said. But after Floyd’s murder, he said he couldn’t ignore the emails he received from people offended by the name. And Cohen said that’s what led to a decision announced last month to change the resort’s name.
“I think it’s entirely understandable that our announcement would kick off discussions elsewhere,” he said.
The resort’s work to determine a new name began right away, and it will be implemented in 2021.
More often than not, it’s Indigenous women leading the fight to rid the word squaw from public places.
One of them is Jude Daniels, from Alberta, Canada, who is Métis. She lives at the base of a mountain peak that white explorers named Squaw’s Tit.
“So, I saw that peak every single day for the last 15 years,” she said. “And even though I have with one exception been treated with respect, I know that odiously named peak is part of the systemic discrimination that is one of the root causes of the huge rates of violence against Indigenous women across Canada.”
Last year, a Canadian government report found that failures by law enforcement have led to systemic violence against Indigenous women and girls. They are three to five times more likely than other women to be victims of violence. Daniels first learned the harm of the word squaw when she was a child in school.
“Kids would say things to me, like ‘dirty squaw,’ “dirty Indian,”” she remembered.
In 2000, Canada’s British Columbia province eliminated the use of the word squaw from all its place names after receiving requests from local Indigenous leaders. But that’s not the case in neighboring Alberta.
“So it happened right next door,” Daniels said. “And here we are in Alberta, and we still have to place names with the word squaw in it.”
Daniels has waged a yearslong campaign to change the name of the mountain peak with the help of pro bono attorneys. Their fight got a sudden boost this summer after Floyd’s death. Daniels said now the local community is overwhelmingly supportive of getting rid of the name. It’s just a matter of choosing another one.
Other communities have put up more resistance, as Mandy Steele found. She’s a borough council member in Fox Chapel, an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She learned what squaw meant this summer at a Black Lives Matter rally in a park.
“The park happened to be called Squaw Valley Park,” Steele said. “And at that rally, a Native American woman spoke.”
The woman, Michele Leonard, talked about what the word squaw means, and why it should be changed. She turned out to be one of Steele’s constituents, who happens to live on a street called Squaw Run Road. Steele put forward a motion to eliminate all the uses of squaw in names there.
“And the council instead decided to put the task of determining whether or not the word is a slur to a committee of residents, in a community that's largely white and privileged,” Steele said.
At that council meeting, on Zoom, Leonard had three minutes to comment.
“I don’t think you understand how painful it has been to hear you speak,” Leonard said, reminding council members that she has lived on Squaw Run Road for 30 years. “I am the Native American woman who has to send out greeting cards with a return address with that horrible word. … I had to get a post office box so I would not use that address for some of the Indian member organizations I belong to.”
Leonard is on the committee that will decide whether the word warrants being removed. She said she’ll argue that while the early white settlers might not have not known they were using a slur, people should recognize that now, and take action.