Group wants to erase 'squaw' from map American Indian activists call it 'worst of the worst'

March 24, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The word "squaw," long the stuff of TV westerns and American vernacular, is so offensive to many American Indians that a national activist group is launching a campaign to remove it from more than 100 places throughout California, including the most famous of all: Squaw Valley.

These activists, leaders of the American Indian Movement, say the word is the white man's pejorative slang for "vagina," and they consider it among "the worst of the worst."

The group's crusade has already met with success in Minnesota, where activists persuaded the state Legislature to pass a law decreeing that 19 places containing the word "squaw" be changed.

"It's racist and sexist," said Fern Mathias of the Southern California Chapter of AIM, the nonprofit activist group founded in Minneapolis in 1968.

Squaw Valley Ski Corp. officials, who are familiar with the Minnesota law, are approaching the matter with caution.

"It is extremely unfortunate that the word 'squaw' has different ZTC meanings to different people," Squaw Valley President Nancy R. Wendt said in a statement. "We are taking these inquiries very seriously and are trying to learn as much about them as possible.

"We will hope to come to [a] resolution that can please all sides involved while holding true to and preserving our history and future," said Wendt, the wife of the ski company's founder, Alex Cushing, who later noted: "We could call it 'Native American Woman Valley' or 'Cushing Valley,' but that doesn't have much of a ring."

According to Hal Hall, president of the Placer County Historical Society, the area known as Squaw Valley had been inhabited by the Washoe tribe since before the mid-1800s, when the first white settlers appeared in 1844.

Apocryphal stories about the valley's name abound, but many seem to agree with a version about settlers who first came upon the tribe, finding only women and children in the Washoe encampment. Thus, "Squaw Valley," Hall said.

That explanation doesn't comfort Carole Standing Elk, Concord-based leader of the Northern California Chapter of AIM and younger sister of Mathias.

The women said they plan to contact California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to ask for their support in the battle to "educate Americans" about the term and their efforts to replace it.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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