On March 14, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (BOS) voted 3-2 to sue the State of California, using public dollars to favor a racist, sexist, derogatory name. They vote in a closed-door session to sue over a recent law that they claim usurps local control and threatens our very freedom and liberty.
That law, AB 2022, states that the word “squaw,” which appears in more than 100 place names in California—is a racist and derogatory slur that demeans Indigenous women. The law requires that S-— be replaced and that all public signage with the name be removed. Yokuts Valley, which recognizes the original inhabitants of this region, is the new name that replaces S— Valley.
Supervisors Nathan Magsig, Steve Brandau and Buddy Mendes voted in a secret meeting to spend your tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit to overturn federal and state law.
They frame the issue solely in terms of big government versus local control. But five powerful arguments—linguistic, historical, moral, constitutional and procedural—make the case for welcoming the change.
Linguistic. As has been abundantly documented, s— is not an innocuous “Indian” word for woman. It has been commonly used in our white colonial settler culture in a way that denigrates Indigenous women. It is an extremely offensive word to an overwhelming majority of Indigenous people.
However, the BOS refuses to acknowledge this. Brandau said at the Oct. 11, 2022, Board meeting that he was “not convinced” that s— is a racist slur.
It’s easy for the average person to read into what Brandau meant: “The term is not offensive to me, a rich, privileged white male in a white-dominated culture. It doesn’t matter to me if Indigenous people and language experts have extensively documented that the term has been and is used as a derogatory racist slur. I don’t need to pay any mind to them.”
Historical. For 10,000 years or more the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra foothills eastward were the homeland to the Yokuts people. Then came the Gold Rush, when white miners, settlers, vigilantes and militias, driven by opportunity and greed, invaded the state. They carried out a vicious and deliberate war of extermination against Aboriginal California “Indians,” including the Yokuts people.
The genocide was devastatingly effective. By the early 1900s, 99% of the Yokuts had disappeared. If we want to be honest about our history and to take steps toward repairing that massive wrong, we must stop pretending, stop making excuses, face the facts and acknowledge the horrors of the California genocide.
History is important, but the BOS refuses to acknowledge this important historical fact.
Moral. Murder is immoral. Genocide is immoral. Casting racist slurs against victims of genocide is immoral. Yet the BOS refuses to honestly deal with this immoral part of our California history.
Constitutional. “Local control” is not the final word on what happens in the United States. We are local jurisdictions governed by states, and all of those are under the federal Constitution.
Mendes said in a post with Magsig on Facebook on March 14 that California’s renaming from S— Valley to Yokuts Valley is similar to the old Soviet Union under Stalin or China’s Red Guards under Chairman Mao. These are wildly untrue and ignorant comments.
The federal and state governments have the authority to override the opinions of local residents if those opinions are racist or go against the Constitution. Think federal marshals escorting Ruby Bridges to integrate an all-white school while the local residents vilified her with horrible insults.
Procedural. In November 2021, Deb Haaland, our first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, in an effort to redress the problem of racist and exclusionary place names, ordered that S— be removed and replaced for almost 650 place names in the United States.
In September 2022, the California state legislature unanimously passed AB 2022, which called for the removal and replacement of “squaw” in about 100 place names in California. Both the federal agency, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN), and the state agency, the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names (CACGN), publicly announced lengthy comment periods.
In November 2022, taking all public comments into account, and vividly aware of the hostility of the BOS to the name change, the CACGN recommended to the USBGN by a vote of 8-0 that the name Yokuts Valley be adopted. This decision was ratified by the USBGN a month later in January 2023.
For the BOS to say the process did not allow for local residents’ input is a falsehood and misrepresentation of the process.
The process of removing S— from locations in the United States and California followed the law and is certainly not a threat to our democracy. The changes were and are legitimate outcomes of representative democracy. They did not and do not menace our republic in any way.
“Local control” has its place. As the Declaration of Independence declares: “Governments derive their just powers [their legitimacy] from the consent of the governed.” But “local control” is not an absolute, and it is not the only consideration.
The BOS’s decision to spend your tax dollars on outside counsel in an expensive, senseless lawsuit is outrageous and must be challenged.