1960 Winter Olympics Site Changes Racist, Sexist Name

by on September 15, 2021 · 4 comments

in California, Civil Rights, History

Once in a while, a news story about a change comes along that resonates, and here is one that does. I personally have been championing this specific change for some 20 years now. And it has finally happened.

The site of the 1960 Winter Olympics near Lake Tahoe is having its name changed. Its owners have decided that the old name that rhymes with “fall” is offensive to Indigenous women. The new name is Palisades Tahoe. Historically, it’s also been called Olympic Valley.

Dee Byrne, president and chief operating officer of the resort, announced:

“This name change reflects who we are as a ski resort and community. We have a reputation for being progressive and boundary-breaking when it comes to feats of skiing and snowboarding. We have proven that those values go beyond the snow for us.”

After an “in-depth research and discovery process” into the history of the region and the Washoe Tribe which called the area home, the resort operators decided to change the name. Their research concluded that the “s-word” is considered a racist and sexist slur against Indigenous women. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California released a statement Monday, September 13, commending the name change and calling it a “milestone decision.” The tribe said:

“Over time, the word ‘squaw’ came to be used as a derogatory and racist term against Native American women. Native American communities across the country have been working for years to have this term removed from place names in their ancestral lands.”

Linguists and other experts on Native American languages describe the “s-word” as a disparaging word for “woman”, “wife,” or female genitalia. Some native activists have asked White people, ‘How would you feel if you lived in Vagina Valley?’

For years, Indian activists have argued that the term has historically been used by Whites in an abusive sense toward Indian women. And I mean for years. In 1929, Britton Davis, an academic biographer of Geronimo, wrote: “I deplore the use of the designations ‘buck’ and ‘squaw’ for the men and women of our North American Indians …. ”

In recent decades, protests against the “s-word” have been numerous. One especially moving expression was in a letter written to the Arizona State Board by Joe Morgen, a member of the Owens Valley Paiute Band of California (Arizona 1998b):

“I am an old man …. I grew up with the ‘S’ word …. I heard white men refer to my mother that way and I was ashamed of her. I didn’t quite understand, but I knew that she was less than nothing or they would have never made that comment. My mother used to actually apply bleach to her face so she would look whiter and gain more acceptance.”

The “S-word” is offensive to many Indians, in the same way that the “N-word” is offensive to African Americans. Just as the “N-word” has been banned from U.S. placenames for some years by government policy, Indian groups argue that “S-word” should be subject to similar action. As researcher William Bright of the University of Colorado put it:

To put matters bluntly, the derogatory use of “squaw” has a background in racism, and racism is a continuing fact in American society. Eliminating the word from maps is a good idea, and may make a small dent in racist thinking, but it will not affect the larger phenomenon of racial prejudice. (See William Bright’s research here.)

But these map-level changes are a reality. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted April 10 this year to officially change the name of a prominent Phoenix mountain to Piestewa Peak to honor the first American Indian woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military. It was formerly named the “S-word” Peak. Arizona alone has hundreds of place names using the “S-word”. And now we have this change for Palisades Tahoe.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeffeck September 17, 2021 at 9:56 am

Perfect! Now we can forget Native Americans ever occupied the region. No need for uncomfortable discussions.


Frank Gormlie September 17, 2021 at 10:01 am

That makes no sense at all. That’s like saying bring back the “N-word” so we can discuss racism against African Americans.


Peter from South O September 17, 2021 at 10:35 am

“rhythms with fall”? Autocorrect strikes again?


Roderick T Long September 18, 2021 at 8:07 pm

Rhymes with “raw” or or “jaw” or “law.” But not “fall.”


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