It was big news in California and Nevada last week when the 72-year-old Lake Tahoe resort formerly known as the Squaw Valley Ski Resort announced its new name: Palisades Tahoe. This was no ordinary rebranding but an acknowledgment that the old name had become irreparably tainted by racist and sexist associations.
In my latest Medium story, “The Valley of the S-word,” I look at the history of squaw, from an innocuous Algonquian word for “woman” to an epithet so charged that the Palisades Tahoe website dares not write its name. Every reference is now expressed as “S*.”
1. According to H.L. Mencken’s The American Language, the hugely influential gossip columnist Walter Winchell (1897–1972) was responsible for popularizing the slangy usage of squaw to mean “wife.” Other Winchellisms include Reno-vated (divorced), profanuage (profane language), and infanticipate (to expect a baby; pregnant was for many years a taboo word in the media).
2. Squaw man first entered the American language in 1856 to denote a non-Indigenous man married to an Indigenous woman. The Squaw Man was a 1905 play written by Edwin Milton Royle that ran for 222 performances on Broadway and enjoyed four revivals between 1907 and 1921. It was adapted three times into feature movies, in 1914, 1918, and 1931. All three versions were directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Poster art for the 1931 Squaw Man, starring Warner Baxter, Lupe Velez, Eleanor Boardman, and Charles Bickford.