Washoe tribal women reflect on Tahoe resort name change

Miranda Jacobson
The generations of Wau0161iw women that came together rejoiced when they were able to walk upon their land, knowing it no longer held the derogatory term it had before.
Provided/Helen Fillmore

The Wašiw Tribe took a step forward in September of 2021 when Squaw Valley announced the name change of their resort to Palisades Tahoe. The name was changed following an official yearlong process of planning and working with the Wašiw (Washoe) Tribe of Nevada and California, along with several public discussions.

While many eager, and some angry, onlookers from around the country waited only a year for the official name change of the resort, the Wašiw Tribe was finally able to breathe a small sigh of relief after decades of fighting the oppressive word.

In August of 2020, when the resort announced it would begin the process of changing the name, Sierra Nevada University alumnae and journalist, Emily Tessmer, was drawn to the story immediately after hearing the news.

“I thought this could be such a cool story — to get feedback on the name change, what it means to them [the tribe] and to give them a platform to stand on and speak their truth,” said Tessmer.

Tessmer reached out to a few tribal members she had previously known to put together a documentary titled, Walking With My Sisters.

“The history of colonialism is horrifying,” said Tessmer. “There hadn’t been any public acknowledgement of what happened.”

The 8 minute documentary gives voice to the women of the Wašiw Tribe and helps viewers understand why the word is so offensive and how that oppression has over time stuck with their people.

Cara James-Denetsosie is a large advocate for her people. Through education and providing helpful resources to those who need them, James-Dentesosie is bringing the knowledge of her tribe to light and slowly helping those who will come after her reclaim their land and heritage.
Provided/Emily Tessmer

The History of Wašiw and the term squaw

The Wašiw creation story says the center of the Wašiw world is DaɁaw (Lake Tahoe) and the people of the Wašiw were brought to the land that surrounded the lake by Gewe (the coyote). The lake is the center of the world for the Wašiw people, both geographically and spiritually.

“We all have a connection with Tahoe,” said tribal member Karen Pete. “The areas around [the lake] are places where people get their food and the things that they use like the willow for baskets, the medicine, and the plants.” For thousands of years, the tribe followed the seasons and lived off the land not only to survive, but to learn and carry on their traditions.

While many tourists enjoy the heavenly views of the basin, there are very few that know who took care of the land long before colonization. Karen explained that when the Wašiw people still lived in the basin, they were able to visit the lake whenever they liked and saw the water as a form of life.

“It is a sacred place to the Wašiw people,” said Karen. She explained that it is a sacred Wašiw tradition to wash yourself with the water from the lake. This tradition — along with many others — was difficult for the Wašiw as more settlers poured into the area and pushed the Wašiw out. Even today, tribal members are required to pay the same fees as tourists to visit their own tribal lands.

In the documentary, Tessmer talked with Ron Cohen, former Chief of Operations of Palisades Tahoe, who was a large proponent of changing the name of the resort due to the violent history of the term. Cohen explained that original stories paint an idyllic picture about settlers arriving and coming in contact with Native women and children in the fields.

“But what we learned when we did the research, is that isn’t what actually happened,” explained Cohen in the documentary.

He explained that what truly happened is that the settlers came to the land with the intention to kill the women, who the settlers referred to as squaws.

“That is actually the oldest and most authentic origin story of this name,” he said. “That name was given because somebody had been murdered here.”

While the term’s meaning has been disputed and even argued that it actually honors Native American women, Miriam Webster dictionary states the English-derived term is “derogatory, dated, disparaging and offensive” to Native American women.

On Palisades Tahoe website, the resort clearly states, “No matter the true origin or intent of the name, we do not believe you can honor someone with a name that they clearly consider to be offensive.”

On the resort’s website they provide their stance, reasons and derogatory examples of the term in early literature including:

“…the crafty ‘squaw’ … the squalid and withered person of this hag,” written by James Fenimore Cooper in the novel, The Last of the Mohicans in 1826.

“…the universal ‘squaw’ – squat, angular, pig-eyed, ragged, wretched, and insect-haunted,” written by Lt. James W. Steele (Memoirs, 1883).

The website also provides common stereotypes correlated with the “Princess” and the “Squaw” including:

“A squaw is a ‘failed’ princess, ‘who is lower than a bad White woman'” – Bird, 1999, p. 73.

“Where the princess was beautiful, the squaw was ugly, even deformed. Where the princess was virtuous, the squaw was debased, immoral, a sexual convenience. Where the princess was proud, the squaw lived a squalid life of servile toil, mistreated by her men—and openly available to non-Native men.” – Francis, 1995, pp. 121–122.

Palisades Tahoe isn’t the first place to dump the term from its name. Since 2003, seven states have worked to remove this name from geographical features, landmarks, and even the outright prohibition of its use in Oregon.

The long road to get here

Many people have fought for this name change among the Wašiw. Tribal elder Dinah Pete remembers the late Linda Shoshone, who served as the cultural director for the tribe over 20 years ago.

“She was the only one that was fighting against that name because it was really insulting to our Wašiw women and what the settlers were doing to them,” said Dinah. Dinah’s daughter Karen agreed that it has been a long time coming for the name change.

“We’ve been oppressed for so long that they [Native Americans] won’t say anything even if it makes them angry,” Karen said. “It wasn’t a Wašiw word.”

Although the ski resort had the name for 70 years, the valley has held the name for over 150. After decades of lobbying and waiting for change, the mother-daughter duo noticed support from the new management at the ski resort and finally began to see change.

“Some of the people [proponents] understood how the Wašiw people felt and I’m really glad those people were behind the Wašiw Tribe,” said Dinah. “Our leaders are really glad that we are changing that name.”

Dinah is hopeful that now that the name change has happened, it will open more doors for education within the Tahoe Basin and hopefully bring more peace for her tribe.

“Hopefully, they’ll understand and know what had gone on before,” said Dinah. “Our younger generation is now realizing what happened to the women.”

While there was an abundance of excitement for this change, there were those who were unhappy with the announcement last fall and are still upset.

“We’ve seen a lot of angry comments about the name change,” said Karen. “It’s sad that people have such angry hearts.”

Tessmer has always felt the indigenous people’s culture has been grossly underrepresented.

“We need to imagine what it must have been like to be in their shoes,” said Tessmer. “I know many people are saying, ‘Oh, the word doesn’t mean anything negative, but it does.”

Education is key

“I was there that day in August 2020,” said tribal member Cara James-Denetsosie. “Us Wašiw ladies visited the land within the Truckee area in celebration when we heard that they were changing the name.”

James-Denetsosie recalled the day her and other tribal members went to the land that was once touched every day by their ancestors.

“As a Wašiw woman, it was the first time in our lives we were allowed access to that area and just be Wašiw,” James-Denetsosie said. “We sang songs and reconnected to the land, plants, water, mountains, and animals. I’ll cherish those memories forever because it’s important that we are able to maintain those relationships with the land and the water. It’s even more important to pass it down to the next generation.”

James-Denetsosie attributes her knowledge of the culture to her grandfather Steven James, a respected elder and one of the last remaining fluent speakers of the language.

“He carries himself in the traditional way,” said James-Denetsosie, “I’ve had the honor to be his caretaker for the last three years. Simply observing him and immersing myself in the language has reconnected me and shown me how to be.”

But she has found that not everyone has had the honor of learning about the tribe from someone so knowledgeable. Other tribal members like Dinah and Karen have pointed to the lack of education on the subject or general hiding of it.

“It’s a hidden sin,” said Karen.

Tessmer said that for those who want to learn about Wašiw culture, there’s no better way than to introduce yourself at one of the Wašiw communities near the basin.

“Immerse yourself in their culture,” said Tessmer. “If there’s an art exhibit, a film, go explore your own backyard because that oftentimes can lead you to discovering what their issues are and learn what they need help with.”

James-Dentesosie believes that education for everyone on the land is the first and only place to start.

“We need to keep educating people on our history,” said James-Dentesosie. “We need to remind them of the land they are on.”

One education piece is through a land acknowledgment before entering Wašiw land out of respect for the area and its people, which is a common practice in many places around the basin.

“They start out with a land acknowledgment which is a polite way to say, ‘Hey, we’re standing on your land. We know who you are, we respect you and your continued presence in this area,'” she said.

James-Dentesosie hopes that with the name change and the raised awareness around the subject, it will help others see the importance of the land and the history to the Wašiw women and tribe. She hopes this will help keep the culture of the Wašiw alive as many of the older generations who lived the traditional Wašiw life are almost gone.

“Our world is rapidly changing and unpredictable due to the aridification of the land we now reside on,” said James-Dentesosie. “If we’re not there to take care of the land, the land will get sick. I’m still trying to carry on our culture; my grandfather used to have grandkids down at his feet and he would tell us the legend from the land, animals, plants and how they’re all alive.”

In addition to participating in traditional hunting and cooking, along with carrying on ancient stories and legends, the Wašiw tribe continues their tradition and education of future generations.

The changing of the resort’s name is just one small step in the long journey of the Wašiw people reclaiming their history.

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2021-22 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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