After the Palisades Tahoe name change, where is the Washoe Tribe looking next?

‘This whole thing, it’s decent. It’s a decent thing to do.’

 

A 70-year-old ski resort near Lake Tahoe removed a sexist and anti-Indigenous slur from its name; a place once infamously dubbed Sq--- Valley is now called Palisades Tahoe. (High Country News is not publishing the slur out of respect for those harmed by its past and continued use.) The announcement follows a yearlong process of planning and discussions with the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. For the Washoe, on whose land the resort sits, this is just one step amid decades of effort to change racist place names in and around the region, part which is still known by that former name.

We spoke with Darrel Cruz, director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office at the Washoe Tribe, to find out more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The new name for the ski resort comes from the Palisades ridge.
Ryan Salm

High Country News: What has the Native community’s response been since the name change was finalized?

Darrel Cruz: I haven’t really heard a lot from the Natives, or at least from our tribe, but I’ve heard from other tribal people from elsewhere, and they sent me letters like, how do I say it, I’m selling out to big business. And they’re saying, well, why didn’t I give it a Washoe name? For me, just having that name “sq---” removed, that’s a victory by itself. And I don’t have to have a Washoe name because I am working on other areas within the valley for a Washoe name. And that’s what I'm doing right now, actually. I’m on the website for the U.S. Board of Geographic Place Names for some other features that I changed in that area.

HCN: So those would be changed to Washoe names?

DC: Definitely; they’re gonna have Washoe names in them.

HCN: How receptive has the county been in working on this name change?

DC: Well, actually, it’s kind of a system that the resort brought that on. They did all of the work themselves. However, I’ve been working with Placer County for the last several years about renaming the valley itself.

HCN: And what’s the name change for the valley? What name do you want?

DC: I’m not exactly sure about that. But I know that there’s a peak that’s called Sq--- Peak, and I could (focus on) that. That’s on Forest Service land; I can go make a direct change with that. Now, when it comes to the valley itself, that’s a little bit more complicated. It’s Placer County, and there’s private people that own land there as well. I would have to go to each individual. So I’m not into that process yet. There’s also a creek there called Sq--- Creek. I’m not sure how that’s going to work, either. But the valley and the creek are within the realm of Placer County, and that’s where I need to work with Placer County.

HCN: Do you feel like they're pretty on board with all of this?

DC: It’s hard to say. … It’s been two years now, and nothing’s happened. The next step is to go directly to the Placer County manager.

HCN: You mentioned some backlash from other Native communities. Has there been any negative backlash from outside the Native community?

DC: Not really. I’ve got about three or four emails from people, and for the most part, it’s all been good. Everywhere I’ve heard, everyone likes the idea of the name change. They think it’s been a long time coming, and most people support it. I’ve been involved in some other name changes, and there’s always those that like it, and there’s always going to be those that are against it.

A group of women from the Washoe Indian Tribe gathered last year to discuss the significance of andshow their support for the name change.
Ryan Salm

For example, we did the name change there in Amador County about five or six years ago. And all of the board of commissioners were supportive, except one. He did not support it. And in the conversation, he kept throwing the word out, “sq---.” It was like he was using it against us.

He didn’t have to use the word, but just to keep using that word was so disrespectful. (Editor’s Note: In 2018, Cruz and the Washoe Tribe successfully changed the name of Sq--- Ridge to Hungalelti Ridge, following a policy change in 2012 by the Region V office of the U.S. Forest Service to remove the slur from all official signage and administrative materials.)

HCN: What would you say if somebody came along and complained that this is the PC police, or this is trying to control people’s language, or something? We hear these kinds of comments when a marginalized community pushes for more respectful language. What would you say to someone who had that kind of response?

DC: Most of the time, I don’t even respond to them. I cannot let myself be dragged down to that level and start to debate them. It’s not worth it. Like I said, I get more positive input than the negative input. And there’s been other instances where they wanted to name a place in Lake Tahoe after Mark Twain. And Mark Twain hated the Washoe. He had all kinds of bad words for the Washoe people. He didn’t even want to name it “Lake Tahoe” because it’s derived from a Washoe word. Because of that, they eventually did not put Mark Twain’s name in there. But I got a whole bunch of hate mail from people. Mark is their hero. For what reason, I don’t know; people latch onto heroes, and that was their hero. But I saw one or two of their comments. And after that, I just disregarded all of them.

All throughout history, names have always changed. Even Lake Tahoe itself; it was called Lake Bigler before it became Lake Tahoe. I don’t know what the rationale was for that. There’s just a history of name changes, and why people get latched on to it, I don’t know.

“All throughout history, names have always changed.”

HCN: Can you tell us what word the name “Tahoe” was derived from?

DC: Daow. “Tahoe” is derived from that word. It just means “the lake.” There’s another word also: daow aga. That means “at the edge of the lake.” In Washoe country, we have all kinds of lakes. We have hundreds of lakes in our country. But when we say Daow, it always means Lake Tahoe. For example, there’s another lake just right down in the Lake Tahoe area called Fallen Leaf Lake, and we just call it Dagushashu Daow, which just means “clear water,” “clear lake.” And then further to the south is Metsibobishi Daow, which means “fly lake,” because there’s tons of mosquitoes there. So certain names will appear before the name of the lake. But Daow — everyone knows that that is the center of the universe for Washoe.

HCN: Is there anything else that you want our readers to know or to understand about the work that you’ve been doing to push for these name changes?

DC: This whole thing, it’s decent. It’s a decent thing to do. Those other terms, like sq---, those are terms and words and behavior from the past. We’ve moved beyond that. If they want to truly call themselves a civilized society, they would remove the sort of things that (are) barriers to the Native population.

The resort itself, it’s going to cost them probably millions of dollars to make this change. ... That’s why I do everything I can to meet them halfway and do whatever I can. I’ve been conducting presentations once a month there at the resort, talking about the Washoe people. And there’s a pretty good turnout every time so far.

HCN: Is that for resort employees, or is that public-facing? 

DC: No, it’s general public: They take the tram to the top of the mountain and up there at the top of the mountain, where we can see everything, you know, that’s a good place for it. And I just do a little one-hour presentation. Our tribe is pretty small. Most people never even heard of us. But I can talk forever, once it comes to our history and culture.

Brian Oaster (they/them) is an editorial intern at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

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