Ruth Hopkins was 5 years old when she heard the slur for the first time.
Her mother decided to take her to a post office at a reservation border town neighboring the Dakota Treaty Lands where they lived. A group of older white men — towering giants, in her eyes — watched her walk in, laughed derisively and said, “little squaw.” Her jaws clenched, and she stood rooted to the spot, immobilized by fear.
One of her very first memories was also one that acutely showed her place in America and in the world.
“It was the first time I realized I was viewed as less than because I am Native and female,” Hopkins, now a biologist, a writer and a tribal attorney, said.
When Squaw Valley Ski Resort, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, announced that it will be changing its 71-year-old name, citing that the word was “derogatory toward Native American women,” it was a moment to celebrate.
“To Native American communities, many of which are matriarchal in setup, the s-word is as jarring as the c— word in English,” Natalie Welch, a Native American athlete advocate said. Welch is Cherokee from the Qualla Boundary, a Cherokee Historic Territory in North Carolina. “Imagine driving by and seeing a name that reads C— Valley Ski Resort, because that’s what it means to us.”
Seeing the word in large letters on a resort or school is a visceral reminder to Native Americans of their place in this colonized world, of their culture’s erasure and of their community’s loss of identity, land and resources.
Despite efforts by Native American activists to get the slur eliminated — and it has been removed in the names of several public properties based on state laws — it still remains in many places in the U.S.: There is Squaw Peak Inn in Arizona, Squaw Lake in California, Squaw Grove Township in Illinois, Squaw Valley Academy in California and Squaw Creek Southern Railroad in Indiana.
And three sports teams still use the term: Bellmont Squaws, a volleyball team in Decatur, Indiana; Dodge County Squaws, a basketball team in Eastman, Georgia; and Jourdanton Squaws, a basketball team in Jourdanton, Texas.
The ski resort in Olympic Valley is located in the eastern part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a two-hour drive northeast of Sacramento near Lake Tahoe. At the 1960 Games, the Soviet Union dominated, winning 21 total medals, while the U.S. won 10. For Team USA, the highlight of the Olympics came from gold medals in men’s and women’s singles figure skating and men’s hockey. The resort still hosts major events, including recently, a 2017 FIS Ski World Cup.
The origin story of how the resort area was named can be traced to a local newspaper story in 1859, current CEO of the resort Ron Cohen found in his research. In the story, a young man traveling west tells everybody in his wagon that he’s going to “shoot and kill the first Indian” he sees.
The wagon reached what is now the Olympic Valley, where a Native American woman stood. The man took aim and shot her in the head, killing her.
And this was just one story of the vicious extermination of Native American people. Cohen found that the areas named Squaw Alpine or Squaw Valley were done so as another means to control and commodify Native Americans.
“To all the people who consider the term as an honor to Native women, how can a term honor a group of people when it was clearly used to dehumanize and eliminate them?” Cohen said. “More than that, how can you honor a group with a name they consider offensive?”
Just last week, Big Squaw Mountain ski resort near Moosehead Lake in Maine opposed a name-change petition started by three Native American activists. The name of the mountain on which the resort is located was changed in 2000 when a state law was passed requiring the removal of the term from all public names, but the rule didn’t extend to private businesses.
In the larger context of name and logo changes — including the Washington Football Team’s recent name change — Native American women are often left out of the conversation, which is why talking about this word specifically is incredibly important, Welch said.
America is going through a historic reckoning with racial injustice, and what a name and logo change signifies is corporations and privileged individuals taking the time to be introspective, to have a dialogue with the marginalized community, to educate themselves on slurs they’ve either willfully or ignorantly used all their lives, Welch said. These names and logos are a part of America’s history, and things cannot change without education — and without using these mistakes as examples to be better in the future, she added.
Sports fans in particular have an intense affinity with names and logos and often get defensive when the name-change conversation comes up, Welch said. “They always say — what about our team’s history — to which I say, “‘Do you even know Native Americans’ history?’ It always blows my mind.”
To many Native Americans, a name and logo change is the least amount of work that can be done. “We’re going to stop insulting you to your face and then selling it on t-shirts and making money off of your pain — that is the lowest bar we can have,” Lucas Brown Eyes, a comedian and writer, said. “It’s 2020, if this is where we are with change, we are so far away from any form of human rights for Native Americans.”
According to Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit working to end violence against women and children, more than one in three Native American women are raped in their lifetime. One in four Native Americans live in poverty, and experience significantly higher rates of substance abuse when compared to other ethnic groups because of historical trauma, violence, poverty, unemployment and racism.
Native Americans are also at a higher risk for several health issues including mental illness, suicide, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the confirmed number of COVID-19 cases among Native Americans/Alaskan Natives is 3.5 times that of non-Hispanic whites. “When we’re not hurt most by America, that’s when we have reached a turning point,” Lucas said.
Last year, for the first time in California history, governor Gavin Newsom issued an apology for the state’s historical wrongdoings, establishing a Truth and Healing Council. It’s a step, said Herman Fillmore, the culture and language resources director for the Washoe Tribe, which fought for the ski resort name change. A bigger step, he said, would be restitution.
“When we do a lot of this work [in talking to schools and communities], we acknowledge the history of the United States and how much effort was put into taking away our languages and cultures,” Fillmore said. “We’re talking generations and millions of dollars spent in taking away our languages and cultures, dehumanizing us, whitewashing us — we need that same effort and energy put in to bring those things back.”
Native Americans come from over 570 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. — each with its own belief system, history, culture, language and land base — so instead of fighting to keep a caricature or a slur in the name of history, work to provide equal opportunity and to level the playing field, Hopkins said.
“We’re out here, pull away the fake and see us,” Hopkins added.
While the ski resort in Olympic Valley has not yet said what its new name will be, the actions that have come from the name change will be meaningful. “It’s really the ultimate apology, because a true apology is changed behavior,” Hopkins said.
More broadly, this name change could eventually increase the diversity in skiing if it led to more opportunities for Native American kids to take up the sport at an early age, Welch said. If ski resorts provided equipment and training to Native American youth in the area, that would mean that fewer kids end up at the juvenile detention centers, Fillmore said. It directly correlates to a better life for the next generation, he added.
“I love Lindsey Vonn, she’s like one of my heroes. I love her story of where she grew up — skiing on a bunny hill — so, I think there could be a Native Lindsey Vonn,” Welch said. “We could have our own athletes in these sports.”