Fight over Fresno County town name heats up following lawsuit

The county’s lawsuit claimed changing the community’s name to Yokuts Valley violated the town’s First Amendment right to free speech

Fresno County residents show their support of the name Yokuts Valley and call on the Board of Supervisors to throw out its “frivolous” lawsuit against the state of California in downtown Fresno on April 11, 2023. (Melissa Montavalo)
Fresno County residents show their support of the name Yokuts Valley and call on the Board of Supervisors to throw out its “frivolous” lawsuit against the state of California in downtown Fresno on April 11, 2023. (Melissa Montavalo)
Diego Vargas
Published January 5, 2024  • 
11:00 am

FRESNO – Fresno County plans to appeal a recent ruling dismissing the county’s lawsuit against the state of California in the now yearslong fight over the use of a term widely viewed as a racist and sexist slur against Native American women.

Speaking with Fresnoland in December, Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig said he wasn’t sure when county officials would file the appeal. He said he plans to continue fighting the new California law passed last year as AB 2022, which removed the term “squaw” from place names and geographical features in the state. 

“We decided to let the ruling stand but to appeal the ruling,” Magsig told Fresnoland. “Concerns that have come up are of the constitutional matter of AB 2022. We will be planning to appeal.”

For Roman Rain Tree, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and the Choinumni tribe who initially petitioned in 2022 to rename Yokuts Valley, the judge’s Dec. 19 ruling was expected.

“I agreed with the Judge’s decision before the lawsuit even ended,” Rain Tree said, “so it doesn’t surprise me.”

The county’s lawsuit claimed changing the community’s name to Yokuts Valley violated the town’s First Amendment right to free speech. Court records show Judge D. Tyler Tharpe concluded Fresno County did not have standing to sue the state of California.

Fight over Fresno County community name heads to voters

But the fight over the name of the Fresno County mountain community is also playing out at the ballot box early next year with another Magsig-led effort to amend the county charter.

Now dubbed Measure B, Fresno County will ask voters in March to change the Fresno County charter to reserve authority over local name changes in unincorporated areas solely for the county board of supervisors.

“Measure B is about preserving the power of the elected officials disguised by local control rhetoric,” Rain Tree told Fresnoland. “A process for renaming that prioritizes local community input already exists: The United States Board on Geographic Names petition process.”

Magsig also reiterated that he is trying to uphold the community’s wishes.

“I’m open to whatever the local residents of Squaw Valley want, it’s their community. I’m open to changing the name or keeping the name,” Magsig said. “It is my job to take the voices of the people and amplify those voices. I believe in local control, and I feel that local voices need to be heard.”

Magsig said Measure B is about keeping the power to rename places locally and within the community.

“The whole purpose is to give local people an opportunity to have their voice be heard,” Magsig said in an interview. “These changes being made at the state and federal level are leaving people out, and that’s wrong.”

Magsig himself has hosted meetings with the community to receive input from constituents on how they feel about the renaming.

In one meeting, Magsig stressed to residents that a name change to the community should come from the community and that, as an elected official, he takes an impartial stance on issues that affect his constituents. The whole meeting can be viewed here.

The Measure B effort has also drawn criticism from several Democratic lawmakers in California who issued a joint statement on Dec. 18.

Assemblymembers James C. Ramos, D-San Bernardino, Joaquin Arambula, Esmeralda Soria and state Sen. Anna Caballero, joined Morningstar Gali of the International Indian Treaty Council to oppose Measure B, which they described as a “misguided attempt to overturn established state law.

“We stand opposed to this attempt to circumvent a legitimately approved law. Removing the “S” word as a place name is about choosing not to use a word that denigrates women and Native Americans,’ Ramos said in the news release. ‘It is a word that has contributed to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People by dehumanizing Native American women and making them appear less than others. Why continue that hate? It’s past time to move forward without the chains of ignorance and bigotry.”

Rain Tree also emphasizes that, though the “S” word has a history in the region, the negative meaning rings true for most in the Indigenous community.

“But I would say 98%-99% regard the word as a pejorative,” Rain Tree said. “I challenge anyone who believes it is a term of endearment, then attend a public Native function and repeatedly call an elder that word and you will discover the word does not conjure or embody immediate beautiful images.

“I believe the reaction would be one of bewilderment, resentment, and maybe anger, to say the least.”

Diego Vargas
Fresnoland.org