For years, Native American residents in Fresno County have campaigned to remove the word “squaw” from the name of an unincorporated town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
The word, many Native Americans say, has been used as a slur and insult against Native women, part of a broader perpetuation of violence against them. In 2022, organizers scored a victory when the U.S. Department of the Interior, which sought to remove the “S-word” from federal lands, re-designated the town as Yokuts Valley for federal use. That same year, the California Legislature passed a measure that required the term be stripped from place names and geographic landmarks statewide by 2025.
But despite securing the backing of the federal government, state lawmakers and the California governor, Native American activists are frustrated that Fresno County leaders are fighting the name change. The Board of Supervisors has placed a measure on the March ballot asking voters to determine just who has the right to name — and rename — communities and geographic features in the county.
The measure does not specifically address Yokuts Valley — and some people in the county argue the town’s name never changed because the federal government had no right to intervene. Measure B would clarify that such decisions belong squarely in the hands of county supervisors and amend the county charter to give the board “the duty and power to name or change the name of geographic features or place names within the unincorporated portions of the County of Fresno.” The board voted 3 to 2 to put it on the ballot.
A group of state lawmakers who pushed forward the 2022 legislation to ban the S-word from state landmarks have joined with Indigenous organizers in a campaign against Measure B.
“Fresno County is special in that they’ve been very difficult,” said Morning Star Gali, executive director of Indigenous Justice, an organization tracking California’s progress in renaming geographic sites that contain the term.
Scholars have grappled over the word’s origin and historic usage. Some say the word originated as a generalized term for Native women. Others, including Gali, say the term took on a darker tone that denigrates Native women, relegating them to a subhuman stature. Merriam-Webster labels the word as offensive, dated and disparaging.
“Erasure and invisibility, that’s what we’re fighting against,” Gali said. “It’s not just a word. It’s a word that holds that history and that context and that meaning.”
Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who represents Yokuts Valley, said he pushed for Measure B in response to what he saw as “a lot of changes” happening with little input from people living in the communities where renaming efforts are underway. He said Yokuts Valley residents largely opposed renaming the community in a survey he conducted.
“This is a local matter,” Magsig said. “Measure B is an attempt to not only assist with that process, but it also has to do with other changes that are happening all around us.”
Native Americans who led the renaming effort say they are flummoxed that a county official is attempting to undo work that included community input. Roman Rain Tree, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, who have ancestral ties to the region, spearheaded a public petition and submitted an appeal to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
Magsig is “getting people riled up, angry, keeping it going, keeping that chaos continuing,” said Taweah Garcia, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians. “We understand some people don’t agree with it. We know some people are for the rename.”
Official efforts to rename places with the S-word began in 2021 when U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that office, banned the term from federal land and ordered the Board on Geographic Names to begin renaming more than 660 valleys, lakes, creeks and other federal sites that bore the term. Haaland declared the term derogatory, saying the nation’s “lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”
The state law banning use of the term empowers an advisory committee, in communication with local tribes and officials, to remove the slur from towns and geographic place names by Jan. 1, 2025.
“We stand opposed to this attempt to circumvent a legitimately approved law,” Assemblyman James C. Ramos (D-Highland), a Native American and the bill’s author, said in a statement. “Removing the S-word as a place name is about choosing not to use a word that denigrates women and Native Americans.”
Magsig questions whether the term is really so derogatory, and insists the bill’s name-change deadline of 2025 means the valley’s name has not officially changed.
“Is there any name that is not offensive to anyone?” Magsig said. “Names are identities to some people. Yes, history is not perfect, but we need to not erase that.”
Fresno County is fighting the state’s renaming campaign on a legal front as well. The county filed a lawsuit against the state last year, contending the name change being forced on Yokuts Valley violates the county’s 1st Amendment right to free speech. A judge rejected the claim, finding the county lacked legal standing. The county has said it would appeal.
Kenneth Hansen, a professor of political science at Cal State Fresno, said Magsig and other conservative supervisors are using the issue to appeal to the county’s GOP base and increase turnout as they run for reelection. “He’s doubling down on this culture war-type stuff to try and get through the primary and possibly the general election,” said Hansen, who is Native American. “Measure B is conservative optics.”
The Native Americans pushing to eradicate use of the term in Fresno County say place names for towns and meadows and mountains and lakes should be rooted in respect — not a throwback to oppression. Naming a town with a slur, “that’s not honoring Indigenous women,” said Garcia, who lives in Dunlap, a community that neighbors Yokuts Valley.
Shirley Guevara, an elder of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians, acknowledged that change has come slowly, as was true with the decades-long campaign to get the Washington, D.C., football team to remove “redskin” from its name.
Magsig declined to speculate on whether supervisors would return Yokuts Valley to its former name if Measure B passes, or seek an alternative such as Bear Valley, which many residents favor. For now, he said, he’s focused on getting the measure passed.
“The next step is finding out what the voters want,” he said.