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Movement To Change Name Of Squaw Valley In Fresno County Seeks Local Support

Gladys Dick McKinney has just made a quick stop for strawberry jello at the Dollar General on Highway 180.

She’s making a cake for her brother’s birthday but before she heads out, she takes a minute to talk to me about the proposed name change and even asks me to sit in her air conditioned car. 

She says she’s lived here all of her life and doesn’t mind the name.

“As far as Squaw Valley offending me, that name does not offend me. And I'm a Indian woman, a mother,” Dick McKinney says.

Dick McKinney is part of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians. She says she first heard of the effort when it was scheduled for discussion at an Orange Cove city council meeting in January this year.

“We’re not even in their district. That’s a city, we’re county,” she says. 

The discussion was postponed, but not before it caused an uproar on social media because it surprised so many locals. Dick McKinney says she understands that the term may hold different meanings in other tribal regions. 

“What does that have to do with us? That's a language in that area,” she says.

Here, she says, it just means women, even if it came from outside settlers.

“When they came into the Valley, they saw these large encampments of women working, and most of them were women because men had different duties and women had different duties, somebody tagged it Squaw Valley,” she says.

Dick McKinney suggests I talk to another lifelong resident, Lenora Cannon.

We head east in our cars and a few minutes later arrive at a ranch house off of 180. Cannon opens the door to greet Dick McKinney and ask about her brother.

Then she greets me. She tells me everyone knows her as Muggs. 

“My grandfather used to put me on the horse they said, in front of him and say, ‘what a cute little muggins and that name stuck,” she says.

Muggs is 92 and she’s a fixture here. She was a teacher for years and she still takes care of the local cemetery her family donated decades ago. She knows everyone, including the Native Americans who live here.

“All the others, the Dicks, the Charleys, I know all of those families because we've been close,” says Muggs, who is white.

Muggs says she called up her Native American friends when she first heard of the name change to see how they felt about it, and she says most wanted to keep it. 

“So why would somebody come up with that now when me, I'm 92 now, I never thought of something like that? It was always a thing of beauty to me,” she says.

But Muggs realizes the name change is not up to her. According to the 2010 Census, about 3000 people live here; 85% are white. Less than 3% are native American. 

“I would have to know how my Indian friends actually felt. Because I believe they’re the ones, that they would be the ones that would be hurting. And I agree with anything that they want,” Muggs says.

But Roman Rain Tree believes locals do want a name change. He says the tribes in the area are still applying for federal recognition, so they’re afraid to speak out. 

A couple weeks ago, he led a virtual presentation to discuss the history behind the word “squaw.” He refers to the area only as “S Valley.”

Rain Tree identifies with the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumni tribe. 

“We have proposed ‘Nuum Valley.’ It's not a name we have dug our heels in; in fact, a lot of residents have suggested ‘Bear Mountain Valley,’” he says in the online session.

Rain Tree is working on an application to change the name with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. And an online petition he started on change.org has more than 16,000 signatures to date.

Rain Tree says the name is sexually derogatory to Native American women and girls and that using it enables a history of violence against indigenous women that is still present today. 

“This name lends itself to complicity,” says Rain Tree. 

Shirley Guevara agrees. She’s the vice chair of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians.

“At some point, you have to take a stand and say, this is not acceptable,” she says. 

Guevara says information on the proposed name change has not gone out to the general membership. As a result, the general council has not voted on an official statement. 

She hopes to see the word “squaw” banned completely in location names. She equates the word to being as offensive to Native Americans as the “N” word to African Americans. 

Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig oversees the unincorporated area as part of his district. Magsig says he’s waiting to see if efforts are made to hold a town hall meeting all residents can attend. 

“With this effort, I have no problem changing any name of any community, but it needs to be a process that’s driven by the local people,” Magsig says.

Squaw Valley Realty is one of the businesses owned by 5th generation Squaw Valley resident, Lonnie Work.

Back on Highway 180, 69-year-old Lonnie Work sits in a squeaky office chair at his business, Squaw Valley Realty. It’s a small stand-alone building painted yellow with the sign above the door.

Work’s family has been here for eight generations, originally as cattle ranchers. He’s white but he’s married to a native American.

“I'm married to an Indian. She does not find anything wrong with the term,” Work says.

He remains skeptical that the people who live and work in Squaw Valley are pushing for the change but if that’s the case, he says he would be open to it. 

“Hopefully, that would be left to the people that actually live here. Not a bunch of people that come in, as either short termers or pretending to speak with the voice of the people that are here,” he says.

Rain Tree won’t say where he lives because he fears retaliation from those who don’t want a name change. But, he says, he has a strong connection to the community.

“Well, my grandparents lived there. So every summer I would go up and I would stay with my grandparents and that's how I forged that deep connection. I mean my mother grew up there. So I've been up there since I was a little guy,” he says.

Rain Tree is planning another online meeting to propose a new name. The date is set for August 11. A link for the virtual event will be posted as an update on the online petition.


Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.