In January, the U.S. government removed a racist and sexist slur for Indigenous women from the names of almost 650 geographic features and locations — including the foothill community of Yokuts Valley in Fresno County.
Omar Shaikh Rashad
Or did they? It depends who you ask.
“Fresno County recognizes Squaw Valley as Squaw Valley,” County Supervisor Nathan Magsig told Fresnoland in an interview.
Not only do county officials refuse to acknowledge the town’s federal name of Yokuts Valley, they also maintain the name was never changed on the local level. Additionally, the federal government’s decision only applies to federal agencies and maps, so a local government like Fresno County does not need to abide by the federal renaming, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
That’s why Nathan Magsig, whose district includes Yokuts Valley, can be seen online and at Board of Supervisors meetings calling the community by what advocates say is the town’s old name.
Most of Fresno County’s supervisors refuse to budge on the matter, pitting their calls for more local control and input against a campaign of several years to remove from the town’s name what’s widely known as a racist and sexist slur.
The revived controversy also presents a view into what’s needed for a community to redefine its name, when a critical mass of Indigenous people want to do away with a derogatory term that, advocates say, only promotes a racist and sexist slur.
“If you think it’s such a name of honor — one of integrity and respect — I challenge you to go to a powwow or another native function and walk up and call a native woman that,” said Roman Rain Tree, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and the Choinumni tribe. “See what kind of reaction you get — it’s not going to be a positive one.”
Besides citing the principle of local control, Magsig has also made note of pushback from non-native residents of the town, as well as some Indigenous people in favor of keeping the old name.
“My experience based upon tribal leaders that I’ve spoken to — there is not consensus that the word is offensive,” Magsig said.
It’s Only Called ‘Yokuts Valley’ on the Map?
In January 2022, Rain Tree filed a petition with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, saying the town — a place his grandparents still live, where his parents grew up and where he has spent countless summers and holidays with family — deserved a respectable name, one that, at the very least, does not degrade the people indigenous to the Sierra Nevada foothills.
News of the federal board changing the name of the foothill town to Yokuts Valley was quickly assumed to be a binding decision that Fresno County would have to follow. Many community members, news organizations and even elected officials were under that impression, but the reality is a bit more complicated.
The federal decision only impacted names under federal jurisdiction. For example, two lakes in Fresno County that used to contain the derogatory term in their names are now known as Tubbe Paa Lake and Nüümü Hu Hupi.
But local jurisdictions like a city or even an unincorporated part of a county are not bound on a local level by federal renaming decisions. While they are listed and maintained in the federal names system, they “are not within the jurisdiction of the BGN to name or rename,” said Giovanni Rocco, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“What the BGN does is set the federal name,” Rocco said. “So for federal agencies and federal purposes, the name is changed.”
While the Yokuts Valley renaming earlier this year was generally a positive outcome, Rain Tree has spent the following months decrying Fresno County’s refusal to acknowledge his advocacy and the merit of the federal government listening to his calls for change.
On top of Fresno County not recognizing the federal decision, Magsig added that local roads and signs that contain the slur will not be changing anytime soon — despite a state law that will soon ban the slur in place names.
Fight over Yokuts Valley in Fresno County to play out in court
Along with the Fresno County Board of Supervisors’ rebuke of the federal name change, they also voted to sue the state of California in March, challenging a law Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last fall banning the use of “squaw” in place names throughout California, starting in 2025. The law set a specific process to change place names, which is currently in progress.
“What it does, in my opinion, is it requires the state to come forward and to be able to demonstrate why they believe they have the authority to name things at the local level.” — Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, speaking about the county’s lawsuit
The lawsuit claimed California is violating the First Amendment, its own state constitution, and that the name of the town was “never intended or adopted by the Community to be derogatory or racist in its intent or cultural meaning in that Community.”
Just last week, the supervisors took yet another step in their protest: they passed a Sept. 19 resolution for a proposed county charter amendment that would ask voters next March to formalize the supervisors’ control over place names in the county, which would extend beyond the Yokuts Valley renaming, including the City of Fresno’s plans for a Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
The March lawsuit and September resolution were both narrowly approved with a 3-2 vote, drawing support from Magsig alongside fellow supervisors Buddy Mendes and Steve Brandau. But even if voters passed the charter amendment, it would never override California law. But Magsig thinks the amendment — which he proposed — would help his case.
“I believe it makes the county more defensible,” Magsig said. “What it does, in my opinion, is it requires the state to come forward and to be able to demonstrate why they believe they have the authority to name things at the local level.”
But the federal decision over the Yokuts Valley renaming originated from local input — Rain Tree’s 2022 petition.
Rain Tree also said the bigger priority has always been to obtain federal recognition, something his tribe and several others in the region, including the Waksatchi and Wukchumni tribes, do not enjoy — hence its members are barred from rights afforded to Indigenous tribes recognized by the federal government, including tribal sovereignty.
“Before anybody else, it was Yokuts people living here,” Rain Tree said. “If our county locally cannot recognize that and come to terms with that as being factual, how are we ever going to expect the federal government to acknowledge us as tribal people?”
What the Slur Means to Indigenous People
Magsig has maintained that community members were split on the federal name change, including Indigenous people in favor of keeping the old name. At the Sept. 19 Board of Supervisors meeting, one person who spoke during public comment said she was of Native American descent and preferred Yokuts Valley’s old name.
Magsig also pointed to evidence sent to him — one undated newspaper clipping that discusses more than 30 anonymous Native American people supportive of the town’s name. It is unclear when or where the article was published and Fresnoland was not able to independently confirm its authenticity.
Rain Tree said that the slur is a divisive term amongst Indigenous people, and he added that a very small minority does not take offense to the word. But Rain Tree emphasized how the vast majority of Indigenous people see it as a term that perpetuates harmful colonial narratives and dehumanizes Indigenous women.
That’s a truth that Rain Tree’s mother knew all too well. Long before he petitioned for the Yokuts Valley name change, Rain Tree and his mother were leaving the funeral of one of her cousins.
During the car ride home in February 2013, he asked his mother whether she thought their tribe would ever obtain federal acknowledgement.
Not with their homeland bearing the name of a slur, she told him.
“She truly believed that there would be no tribal federal acknowledgement, until our ancestral homeland bears a respectable name,” Rain Tree said. “It was that simple.”
Rain Tree’s mother was gravely sick with cancer at the time. She passed away one month after that car ride conversation.
She also didn’t get to see the federal government, almost 10 years later, accept her son’s petition to rename their home Yokuts Valley.
But that isn’t anything new, Rain Tree said. When Indigenous elders talk about change, they often remark about how they’d die before getting to see it materialize.
“A common response from a lot of people — the elders?” Rain Tree said. ‘ “Not in my lifetime.’ ”
About the Author
Omar Shaikh Rashad is the government accountability reporter for Fresnoland.
Fresnoland is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to making policy public.