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Fresno County takes fight for ‘local control’ to the ballot. But what does it mean?

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

FRESNO, Calif. – In 2021, the Department of the Interior approved the removal of the term “squaw” from 650 place names across the country. According to the department, the word has been used as a racial and sexist slur against Indigenous women.

A year later, California voters passed a similar law – AB 2022 – that required local government agencies, such as city councils and board of supervisors, to rename any areas that bore the offensive term.

Fresno County then sued the state over the legislation, but the lawsuit was tossed, with the court stating the county lacked the standing necessary to sue.

The board is currently appealing the decision. But as voters go to the polls during the March 5th Primary, they will vote on a measure – Measure B – that could give the county more power over naming and renaming places in unincorporated areas that are not under state or federal jurisdiction.

This is the latest turn in the fight between the board and activists who have fought since 2020 to remove the derogatory term from the county.

In particular, the debate over the term centered in the community of Squaw Valley in eastern Fresno county – which has since been renamed to Yokuts Valley, much to the disagreement from county supervisors and some residents.

Measure is about ‘local control,’ supporters say

The measure is asking voters to decide if local government should have the final say in naming county-designated places — the board says it’s a way to maintain “local control.”

“Ever since Fresno County has been established, places have been named by the local communities – not by the state and federal government,” said Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who represents the area now renamed to Yokuts Valley.

“When it comes to name changes, the people who live in those areas should be the ones that are making the decision,” Magsig added in a call with KVPR.

If the measure is approved, the Board of Supervisors would be able to add language to the county charter that would give itself more authority over place names only in county-designated areas.

Official supporters of the measure include Magsig and Supervisor Steve Brandau. Those who lined up to oppose it include officials like State Senator Anna Caballero, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, the Fresno League of Women Voters and the Human Rights Coalition Central Valley organization.

The measure would need a simple majority to pass.

The fight for Yokuts Valley

Though the state and federal legislation put an end to the former name of Yokuts Valley, local activists had been pushing for a name change since 2020.

An online petition created by Roman Rain Tree, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and the Choinumni tribe, garnered more than 30,000 signatures in support.

He says seeing the federal decision and the widespread support from the community was “a beautiful experience.”

“It’s one thing when it comes from your own people,” Rain Tree told KVPR. “But it's another thing when other people who don't understand it go the extra mile to educate themselves, understand why it's offensive, and then say, ‘you know what, I don't want this in my community.’”

Rain Tree says he views Measure B as just another fight that he predicts would only continue.

“It means more court challenges, and then, ultimately, more public taxpayer dollars being wasted,” he said.

If the measure fails to garner a simple majority, the language on the county charter would remain the same. If the measure passes, the charter would be updated to give more responsibility over names in county places to the board of supervisors.

But Dr. Kenneth Hansen, who specializes in American Indian Law at Fresno State, says no matter how voters decide on Measure B, the original name of Yokuts Valley – what started all of this – isn’t likely to return.

“If it were to pass, it still probably wouldn't be able to take effect,” Hansen says. “[The county’s] tried pushing back against the state, I don't imagine they'd have any other luck with the federal government.”

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.