San Francisco Chronicle
After much thought, iconic Squaw Valley unveils new name
Renaming the famous ski resort was inevitable, Ron Cohen said, and the reason is simple.
“It was just the right time,” said Cohen, former president of Squaw Valley in north Lake Tahoe, who made the decision to rename the historic resort last year.
On Monday, after a year’s worth of community Zoom hearings, committee brainstorms, marketing meetings and consultations with tribal leaders, the resort announced its new name: Palisades Tahoe.
“Our storied past will remain, but we are evolving,” the resort said in a video announcement. “But the old name didn’t match our values, our spirit or who we are.”
Conversations about scrubbing the term “squaw” had burbled internally for decades but never gained traction. Then
last year, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking protests nationwide and imploring companies, government agencies and other institutions to re-examine their contributions to cultural equity.
The effects are still unfolding across the country. Communities are removing monuments to America’s racist past. Professional sports teams are rebranding themselves. Universities are contending with the controversial legacies of their founders.
To the Tahoe ski area, the disruption offered an opportunity to confront an awkward truth that has haunted the resort and surrounding mountain community since their establishment in the mid-20th century: “Squaw” is a misogynistic term with an ugly history. Though perceived by some Americans as a benign reference to a young Native American woman, records show the word was in fact wielded as a slur by the colonists who subjugated Lake Tahoe’s Indigenous inhabitants.
“It never was something we accepted. It was imposed on us,” said Darrel Cruz, Tribal Historic Preservation Office director for the Washoe Tribe, whose ancestral lands encompass Tahoe. “In the past, the word was used as a weapon to dehumanize the people, which pretty much allowed people to commit crimes on them without guilt or remorse.”
In August last year, after an internal investigation of the term’s etymology, Cohen announced that Squaw Valley, one of North America’s most iconic ski resorts and an epicenter of global ski culture, would remove the name.
“There’s really heavy evidence that this is a derogatory word,” Cohen, who was also president of sister resort Alpine Meadows, said recently. “We knew that we couldn’t go forward with a name that meant something offensive to the people who lived here before us, who are our neighbors.”
Renaming a business is one thing, but Squaw Valley represents much more. The resort is synonymous with the adjacent mountain town and carries unparalleled cultural and historic significance to skiing. It’s a jewel in Lake Tahoe’s worldclass landscape that has imbued the region with prestige since it opened 72 years ago.
The announcement last year rippled through the Tahoe community, pitting passionate residents in a battle of hometown pride. “Squaw” adorns the local mountain and creek, as well as businesses, streets, a park and a firehouse in the area, and more changes are already flowing from the resort’s decision that promise to transform how future generations view the beloved valley.
More broadly, “squaw” is emblazoned on public lands across the country, and removing the harmful word from such a prominent perch could fuel efforts to excise it from the American lexicon for good.
Many locals say the term’s provincial connotation is only positive. According to local lore, Squaw Valley was named by pioneers who spotted members of an Indigenous tribe occupying a grassy meadow as they arrived in covered wagons in the 1800s.
A common version of this story is relayed in the history book “Squaw Valley & Alpine Meadows: Tales From Two Valleys,” written by local author and skiing historian Eddy Starr Ancinas. The valley was “so named for the many Washoe women found in the valley during the summer months while their men were up in the mountains hunting.”
That notion has since been called into question by research indicating a darker origin of the name.
“The idea that this name is offensive — no one here grew up with that story,” said Ancinas, 80, who supports the name change.
Squaw Valley’s community took root before the 1960 Winter Olympics, which were held at the ski resort to enormous fanfare. Since then town residents have grown up beneath a 50-foot steel monument at the valley’s entrance that heralds “Squaw Valley USA.” (However, to avoid confusion with a pre-existing Squaw Valley location in California, the U.S.
Postal Service recognizes the town as Olympic Valley.)
The ski area is a tangible connection to those early glory days and a source of pride. It is intertwined with the community, which is what makes the name change so difficult for many locals to accept.
“I truly think we should change the name, but I really don’t know that I’ll ever call it anything different, even though I want to,” said Alisa Adriani, 48, a real estate broker who has lived in the valley all her life. “I don’t know how I’ll ever stop saying it. It’s just habit.”
To the world’s ski community, Squaw is a powerful identifier, denoting an elite crop of athletes and Olympians grown in one of the sport’s premier alpine arenas.
The ski area’s “greatness is unrivaled, really,” said Scott Gaffney, 52, a renowned skiing filmmaker who lives a short drive from the valley, in Tahoe City. “But even so, I still think it’s time to change the name.”
Some say they’ve known that the word is problematic for decades and that the resort’s decision is the culmination of quiet debates that had been
going on for years. Others say they learned about the word’s true meaning only after the resort’s announcement.
“It’s been known to be offensive for a long time,” said Cody Townsend, 38, a professional freeskier in Tahoe City. “I remember learning it was offensive when I was 10 or 11 years old. But there wasn’t enough of an upswell of people caring to actually change it.”
Others view the name change as an assault on their heritage driven by misplaced political correctness. Since the resort’s announcement last year, its social media feeds have been mired in rage-tinged controversy and recriminations, with opponents criticizing the decision as a symptom of “wokeness” or a casualty of cancel culture.
That kind of response is to be expected from passionate locals, Gaffney said. How can a place that has inspired so much positivity among one group of people stand as a symbol of atrocity to another?
“There are a lot of people in Squaw who have lived there for their entire lives, who I totally respect, who are having a hard time with the name change,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, we’re going to hear the name Squaw for years to come because people just won’t accept it.”
The resort’s decision falls in line with a national reckoning on the harmful term. “Squaw” is attached to more than 600 federal sites from Maine to California — peaks, forests, lakes, trails and at least one canyon.
“It’s by far the most widely used racial slur in American place names,” said Paul Spitler, senior legislative policy manager for the Wilderness Society.
Several states have passed laws to eradicate the word from public lands, including Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Maine. Congress is considering the Reconciliation in Place Names Act, which would create an advisory board to liaise with tribal and cultural groups in a national renaming effort.
“It’s long overdue,” Spitler said.
Combined with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ski resort’s decision is sparking change in Tahoe.
Days after the announcement last year, Squaw Valley’s municipal services district opted to rename itself Olympic Valley. The Washoe Tribe had been requesting the change for years. But internal conversations to rename the Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council, of which Adriani is a member, have not gained traction, she said.
Last fall, Placer County moved to change a street named after a racial slur in Kings Beach, near Squaw Valley. Earlier this year, Placerville opted to remove the image of a noose from its city logo.
Given Squaw’s stature in the ski industry, which serves a clientele that is primarily afflu
ent and white, its decision is nudging other resorts to be more conscientious. Across Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood Mountain Resort called Cruz to consult on updates to its brochures, which will include information about the Washoe Tribe’s connection to the area.
The cultural zeitgeist “is already spurring a larger conversation of how do we be more inclusive as an industry,” said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “We’re having to ask ourselves questions about how we embrace a larger group of our community.”
In addition to the valley, there are five natural features bearing the name “squaw” in Placer County: a peak, creek, gulch and two flats. Changing those requires approval from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Cruz said he plans to submit a proposal to the board soon.
Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson, whose district includes Squaw Valley, said she plans to scrub the name from a municipal park and county streets and signs as well.
“I’m happy to bring that process under way. I just wanted to wait until the resort was renamed so we can be thoughtful and compatible,” she said.
When asked whether community opposition could stop those name changes, Gustafson replied, “If there is reason or rational thought behind it, we want to address that. But, to date, I have only heard people say, ‘Well, we shouldn’t have to.’ But shouldn’t we want to?
“I don’t know what else to say about it other than we need to be leaders,” she said.
On a hot, hazy August morning, Cruz stood on a deck at the ski resort’s high camp before a seated crowd of 80 people and relayed his tribe’s historic connection to the landscape. It was part of a new monthly event series the resort started with Cruz to educate locals.
In a dark T-shirt, hiking boots and a white baseball cap, Cruz explained how his tribe was decimated by disease with the arrival of white migrants and ultimately lost its homeland. He doesn’t know whether his ancestors had a name for the valley, but tribal elders knew it as a hunting ground that was referred to as “the place where the big deer run.”
Today, there are about 1,500 Washoe in the tribe, most of whom live on tribal land southeast of Lake Tahoe. The tribe owns 2 acres in Squaw Valley as well. But there are several ancient archaeological sites in the area and Cruz hopes to reestablish them and rekindle the tribe’s old customs.
“Our goal is to get back our cultural affiliation to the place,” he said. “It all goes back to that ancient place. That’s who we are.”
At the end of his presentation, Cruz offered Cohen a Washoe blanket as a token of gratitude for bringing about the name change. Even after decades of waiting, it hasn’t come too late for the Washoe who remain, Cruz said.
“When the women in the tribe heard about it, they said, ‘Now we can come back and feel welcome,’ ” Cruz said. “Just the simple act of removing that name means they can come back here.”