What’s in a Name?

By Anna-Kirstie Ross


Roman Rain Tree discusses on his campaign to rename the community of Squaw Valley (Now Yokuts Valley)

Interview conducted by Anna-Kirstie Ross on March 24, 2023.

The term ‘Squaw’ (hereafter Sq___) is widely considered as an offensive, derogatory, racist and misogynistic word used to refer to Native American women. In 2021, following the renaming of the Sq___ Valley ski resort to ‘Palisades Tahoe Ski Resort’, a petition was launched to change the name of the town of Sq___ Valley by local Indigenous resident Roman Rain Tree. After two years of campaigning at the local level, and aided by the introduction of new laws at the state and national levels, the movement led by Rain Tree succeeded in getting the town’s name changed to Yokuts Valley in 2023. However, this campaign created serious division within the community, and many people, chief among them the County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, are still opposed to the renaming, and are seeking to have the decision reversed in the courts.

In this interview with Mr. Rain Tree, he shares what the campaign has meant to him on a personal level, the importance of faith, dedication, and mentorship for any movement seeking change, the opposition he has faced from the local community, and the challenges that still lie ahead for the movement.

*DISCLAIMER: aspects of the following conversation have been abridged or clarified, but none of the original content or meaning has been changed*

As of March 2023 this campaign has been going on for just over two years. Do you feel that what you’ve accomplished at this point is the end goal that you foresaw? Or is there still more work to be done?

Oh there’s tons to be done. This is not the end goal. My inspiration was really processing my grief after my mother had passed away in 2013, and one of the final conversations I had with her was asking her if she thought we would ever be recognized as a tribe – keeping in mind that our people are not fully acknowledged by the federal government of the United States, and our treaties were broken, and that’s ultimately why we’re in this predicament that we are in. So I asked my mother: do you think will ever be acknowledged so long as our ancestral homeland is named with this pejorative? How do you think that we’re ever going to have the dignity and respect to be acknowledged as a people as long as we, as a people, allow someone to define who we are? It goes against the principles of self-determination and self-governance.

I thought maybe the first step would be to rename this homeland because of my conversation with my mother. And that’s pretty much how I got started.

 Now that the name has pretty much been changed, can we start talking about the tribes and their plight? This year is actually the 170th anniversary for all of our tribes’ treaties that have been broken. California made eighteen ‘forgotten treaties’ with 119 California tribes. That’s a large reason why California accounts for 25% of all tribes petitioning for their lawful status to be acknowledged. It just so happens that Fresno County, in which I reside, Los Angeles County, and Monterey County are the three most populated counties in America. So you can see the ramifications of those eighteen forgotten treaties. So that’s really what this is all about.

What would gaining federal acknowledgment mean for the tribes?

It’s a lawful status, and what those treaties really meant was that our ancestors ceded to you this land – the land that is now the fifth largest economy in the world – known as California. We ceded that and in return you were going to guarantee us basic housing, basic education, all these other things that we used to have before the arrival of the ‘early Californians’/ ‘early Americans’. You were going to provide for us, you were going to guarantee this for us, and now we don’t have that.  Instead, it’s a bureaucratic mess – to say the least. It’s something I call “genocide by bureaucracy.” Let me explain what that means: it’s a bureaucratic mess that is known to be a bureaucratic mess, but nobody cares, and so it just takes more and more time. If this affected the American veterans or if this affected American unemployment benefits or Social Security this would have been remedied long ago. So you have tribes like mine that have been petitioning since before I was born – that’s over 4 decades ago – and we’re still no further along.

What has your personal journey through all of this been like? Has leading this movement impacted you personally in any way?

It was nothing I was ever prepared for. I never prepared to have my life threatened. I never prepared to be spat at.  And I was never prepared to be called such racial – and just foul – words. So it was very fascinating that this was now sanctioned and permitted by our county official. So when the law did go into effect it seemed like that was a wake up call for the elected official that ‘if I don’t do something I’m gonna lose these votes and I won’t be up for office again,’ so that is kind of in a nutshell where we’re at.

If you want to talk about what it means to me personally – it’s a spiritual awakening. I tell people this all the time: If both my parents were still here, after they had officially renamed the town my parents would have said ‘when you go out there and you make your offering and you thank the creator you just remember, Roman Rain Tree never changed anything – the creator chose you to be a vessel to work through.’

It’s easy to love a winner but when you first start out like I did nobody believed in me. My parents were gone, my brother and sister said like ‘we believe in you in the sense that you’re our brother but beyond that – lots of luck!’ There came points where I wanted to give it away but nobody would take it. Those were my weakest points, when I kind of felt like: ‘I don’t know if I have faith, but if you don’t show me something you’re gonna lose me forever’ – and in that moment was when I experienced a resounding calming effect. That must have been in February 2020, and the following month after just staying the course, I’m at the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and so with the ACLU now I have somebody to fund my ideas, to take out a full page ad in our local newspaper, to say ‘hey I wanna make a movie or a public service announcement.’ Now I had somebody who was willing to financially support me, to use their knowledge as attorneys and higher education to help me out with my writing, and so that mentorship and that stewardship has really been valuable.

So I just stayed that course and I would have never guessed it but then in November of that same year that’s when Secretary Haaland announced their goal to end the use of that word [squaw] nationwide, and ever since then here locally the momentum has stayed on our side, when before nobody would listen to us. Even my own native community took a backseat and it took the community being violent and racist at this public community meeting for the native communities to say ‘oh you can’t do that!’ Once they could see themselves being the recipient of those slurs – that negative energy – they didn’t like it.

The whole journey has been very spiritually awakening to me, very humbling and it’s just wonderful. I never thought that this story would be somewhere where you’re at – clear across the world. It’s just been fascinating, absolutely fascinating. And it just kind of goes back to that whole resolve of ‘wow – the creator is really beautiful, the creator is really mysterious’ and it’s just wonderful to be in this space and just to be here with you folks or with you I should say.

You mentioned earlier that you had lacked the official support from a lot of the tribal councils in your area. Have you noticed any sort of difference in their attitudes since the renaming has become official? Have they come out in a more supportive capacity toward you personally or to the renaming more generally?

Well it’s fascinating because much of the tribal council leadership I’m directly related to. After talking to the chairperson of the Wukchumni tribe I learned that we’re related through my grandfather. On the Dunlap band of Mono, my grandfather and now my uncle are the chairpersons of that. Then the other tribe, the Choinumni people much of the leadership, if not all of them, I’m directly related to, so again it’s kind of a thing where I’m the younger and they’re the older ones – the elders now in our community – and it kind of comes across like – even though I don’t say it – but there’s kind of a sense like “who are you to come along after we’ve been trying for so long? Now you come back with your fancy education and you think you know more than us!”

But some folks were always kind of supportive. My great aunt really kind of mentored me.  She had previously taken on a multibillion dollar corporation with her tribe to prevent them from doing any mining. She told me to use her experience and get my story out there: ‘don’t rely on your own people, you’re only going to make progress when you’ve got non-natives from the Cambodian community here, the Armenian community, the Black community – everybody! You want everybody talking about it.’ So that really helped – having somebody who understands, who was coming from the community. And when I say mentorship I mean this is a person I might have had one or two conversations with at the time when I really need to talk to somebody.  You only need one or two people on your side, and there will be days when maybe you’re the only one in the meeting room trying to organize that but that’s okay, because all you need are one or two faithful ‘ride-or-die with you’ people and you can move mountains.

I think that’s really what has changed with the tribal governments.on. I think they’re waiting to see what’s going to happen with this. Seeing where this is going. I think many people didn’t think we would get as far, and as quickly, as we have. I mean we’ve passed an assembly bill that was uncontested, and then ultimately signed into law by the governor of California, and so now when I talk about how I want the governor to use his powers of executive order to create a lawful tribal acknowledgement for all the tribes in California people now think ‘yeah that’s a lot of work and that sounds really hard, but then this other thing was really impossible too and you’ve seemed to manage that!’  So it has changed, but I think some people still say ‘well we’ve been working on this for 40 years, who are you to come along and say you know right by doing this and not helping us?’

 You have to consider that we have American politics in the community but then within that we have the Native American community politics; and then within the Native American community we have the tribal politics; and then within the individual tribes you have family politics because a lot of our tribes are dominated by large families.

So there’s a lot of layers to contend with, and a lot of people with their own agendas.

Yeah it’s a lot of layers. You can’t please everybody, that’s what my aunt said. In our Choinumni way we don’t have a word for religion, it’s just a way of life  – ‘just move forward in a good way.’ So everything I try to do I try to do it from a good place. What I have come to learn is that this work changes you. I’m not normally like that. By nature I’m very reactive, angry a lot, but a lot of that has to be zoomed out because it could be used against me. But if I don’t give them anything then they have nothing to use against me. Ultimately, going to the federal acknowledgment, that’s our strategy – how do we keep this going in the most nonviolent peaceful way while people are protesting, how do we show that peace can be equally as effective if not more effective because it’s peaceful.

You talked about how important the mentorship of your aunt has been to you.  As someone who has now led their own successful campaign, is there any advice you would give to other individuals or groups who are looking to enact similar changes in their own communities?

I guess the one thing I would say is that you’ve got to have that desire. If you don’t have that fire in you, that fire – that angst that’s just not gonna go away but be like a dog with a bone – if you don’t have that then you’ve already lost. You’ve gotta have that. And that’s where the seeds of my faith [came into play] and rekindling that for myself. They say sometimes that you’re talking to the creator and sometimes you’re yelling at the creator – venting – but I have a healthy relationship [with my faith] and that was the largest part of it for me. I think you have to be willing to be knocked down and get back up repeatedly and just accept that that is part of the train because you never know what tomorrow is going to allow you to have.

There was a time where I didn’t know that you were doing this research, but we were on the verge to cross paths. There is probably somebody else out there I’m on the verge to cross paths with, and I don’t know when that’s gonna happen but from where everything has gone, I feel like the creator’s gonna say ‘you need to cross paths with this person at this moment,’ and that’s the beauty of it. I don’t think this journey really has an end date. The renaming is sort of coming to an end now, but the acknowledgement has just begun, so I feel like what I’m doing isn’t personal. It is almost spiritual, I feel sort of like I’m on a mission from God – this is what I need to do, and nothing’s gonna get in my way. If I had to remove myself from certain situations now, then so be it, because this thing is compelling me to do this and that’s really what I would say: you need to have that because you’re going to get knocked down.

In one of our previous email conversations you mentioned how you like to emphasize the involvement of your children as ‘an indicator of the intergenerational trauma caused by the former town name.’ Would you like to expand on that, or on the role your children played in how you approached the renaming effort?

My mother lived on the land most of her life and my children are involved because all my life when I was a child we were told we’re not recognized, we’re trying to get this, that the S-word was small potatoes compared to the acknowledgement. And in a lot of people’s eyes it is because we only have so much energy – so much time – to invest over here, and that’s how things like the name just kind of perpetuated itself.  I say to my children that when I was their age, my elders would look at me and say I was the future.  

Well, now that future is the present, and I’m looking at my children saying the exact same things these elders were saying to me, and nothing has changed. So that’s what I mean by the intergenerational trauma. When you start killing people through bureaucracy then you are basically not only enacting genocide on them, but you start to hear people saying ‘so-and-so passed away and they were the last fluent speaker of the tribe.’ When you don’t have a landbase and your way of life –  your religion – is directly connected to the place you’re born in,  nowhere else in the world, the place you’re born into with its ties to the food we ate, the materials we gathered for homes or baskets, our way of life, all that is now disturbed. People forget things overtime – and I don’t just mean language, I mean a way of life – people forget that they used to exist.

So that’s what I mean by genocide through the bureaucracy. They can’t kill us with the gun, that can’t kill us with the disease infested blankets, so they think ‘we’ll just wait it out and eventually these people won’t have no culture, won’t have no language, and we can go back in there and say: where is the Indian at? You just have some blood in you. You don’t have no culture, no land, you guys let your stuff go!’ and I’m not even saying that they’re going to say that because they already are saying that when you look at the federal government’s reasons for denials of tribes that are being reviewed.

There are about 400 tribes in America that are waiting for this acknowledgement process just to be reviewed, and they only review about two to three each year, and my respective tribal wait numbers are 178 and 209. So again, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime if we keep going at this rate, right? So for me, why get angry when you can get even?

What, from your perspective, does ‘getting even’ entail?

The way you get even is by learning the system and saying: how can I beat you at it? One of the ways that I’ve learned is through making different partnerships. But also, I’ve learned that the faith community here locally really wants to support us but doesn’t know how. They’re non-native, but they sympathize, and maybe empathize, with us. Our faith leaders have a lot of power, and it’s not just in my native community, but it seems like their own community. So being able to draw upon my own native upbringing and contrast it with my Christian upbringing as a Catholic, as a Christian, and as a Baptist, allows me to speak about sacraments and liturgy but through a lens of an Indigenous perspective and challenge people and say: ‘I know you yourself didn’t do anything, but this was done in the name of your faith, and those faiths at the time thought they were doing the Lord’s work of indoctrinating us through boarding schools and removing us from our religion, but now that we’ve come to a better place and we have a better understanding we’re not pointing the finger, we’re just asking does your faith compel you to rectify what was done wrong in the name of your faith?’ And a lot of people feel compelled to answer yes – even if it means just putting their name on this petition to say, ‘yes we support these people to be acknowledged.’

Thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences and all of your knowledge about the ongoing struggles between the unacknowledged tribes and the US government. You’ve really helped to place the renaming campaign into a much broader context. My remaining questions are more about the current situation ‘on the ground’ in Yokuts Valley.  I know the law that the governor of California recently passed – AB2022 – pertains to public place names, but doesn’t address business names or the names of privately owned locations. So I’m wondering: How have local businesses been responding to the community name change?  Have they been updating their own business names and signage, or has there been a lot of pushback from them on this issue?

Oh, there’s been a lot of pushback. I sat in on the meetings as they were authoring the legislation and got to throw in my two cents every so often. My understanding is that the law is written so that if those signages [i.e. ones featuring the name Squaw Valley] are facing public domain, they are in violation – you can be on private property, but can’t face public domain, and a lot of that stuff is right off the freeway, and I think a lot of people are kind of worried in that sense that they’re gonna be forced to remove the signs. Especially if you’re a realtor, you want it to face the public domain. That has been one of the constant questions that I’ve asked – what is going to be the fiscal impact for individuals? And the supervisor has never wanted to dialogue about that. So, to this day, we don’t know what the fiscal impact is – at least, I don’t.

I read an article published fairly recently about one of the S-valley signs in front of the local library being removed. Following the removal, supervisor Magsig told his followers on Facebook that the sign was going to be put back, despite the new state law. Has this been an ongoing issue with any signage that is being taken down?  Has the majority of signage even been removed, or does it remain in place?

So a lot of the green federal signs have been taken down. But signs that are provided by CAL-TRANS [California Transit] in the state of California have not yet, and that’s because of supervisor Magsig. The supervisor has directed agencies not to do anything. He’s taking his legal battle to court, and that’s kind of where the situation is right now.

But pertaining to what you had just said regarding the library sign, that came about because the librarian, I guess, saw the writing on the wall and said, ‘I want to take down the sign to preserve history,’ and residents got pissed off and called the supervisor, and the supervisor ordered that it be put back up. But before it was put back up, they gave it a paint job to revitalize it, so to speak, and then put it back up. Well, that’s in violation of AB2022. Now that you’ve got this new law, you can’t just erect a new sign now. That’s something the ACLU here was starting to look into until [Magsig and his associates] made their announcement about their desires to challenge it legally in court. So now it sounds like the ACLU is shifting their concentration more towards that.

Mind you, AB2022 doesn’t go into effect until 2025. So 2024 is when most of that stuff is probably going to need to be addressed, and it’s coincidentally an election year for Supervisor Magsig.

Well, that will certainly provide an interesting set of circumstances! Regarding the general mood of the community: Do you believe that more community support has been swayed over to your side? Or do Magsig’s views still represent the majority opinion?

I think he thinks he represents the majority opinion. But I think now he’s picking on a sleeping giant because now he’s using taxpayer money. So people who don’t care about this name, who have no investment in this name change whatsoever, are going to be saying, ‘you’re going to use my money to fight this in court?’ And that’s really what I mean – he’s playing with fire. It seems like he felt he had to do something to save his constituent base of voters because next year if those signs are gone, I doubt they’re going to vote him back in.

 So it would seem he’s chosen the renaming campaign as his hill to die on, so to speak.

Yes. Yeah definitely.

Well, it will certainly be interesting to follow up on this in a year or so and see how the circumstances have developed. I wish you the best of luck in your continued efforts and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, it has been a real pleasure. 

About the Interviewer:

Anna-Kirstie Ross is currently completing her master’s degree in Global History and International Relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is interested in the ongoing processes of reconciliation and reparations between Settler society and the Indigenous peoples of North America, with an emphasis on the historical foundations of these ongoing struggles. Her current master’s research foregrounds Canadian self-representation and depictions of Indigenous people in national propaganda at late-nineteenth-century world fairs. She hopes to continue her engagement with Settler-Colonial history and contemporary Settler-Indigenous relations in a professional capacity, ideally as a policy analyst or researcher with the Canadian government.