'The people's peak': Racist slur removed from 竞技宝入口 landscape after decadeslong effort by the Washoe Tribe

The new names are inclusive to everyone

Photo of Julie Brown
The view from Washeshu Peak, near Lake 竞技宝入口. This peak and a nearby valley and creek were recently renamed as part of a nationwide effort to remove a racist slur from geographical landmarks. The Washoe Tribe chose the new name, Washeshu, which means "the people."?

The view from Washeshu Peak, near Lake 竞技宝入口. This peak and a nearby valley and creek were recently renamed as part of a nationwide effort to remove a racist slur from geographical landmarks. The Washoe Tribe chose the new name, Washeshu, which means "the people."?

Katherine McCool / Getty Images/500px Plus

Editor’s note: This story contains offensive language that may be upsetting to readers.

For decades, the Washoe Tribe has advocated for the removal of a racist, derogatory slur from geographical landmarks and business names in their ancestral lands in the Lake 竞技宝入口 region.?

Now, after a nationwide announcement from the Department of the Interior last week, that slur has officially been removed from several prominent sites, capping an enormous effort that was led by the Washoe Tribe, propelled by a ski resort and supported by the local community to rid the region of a word that historically has been used to degrade Indigenous women.

A map compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey now showcases new names for these geographical features, including Washeshu Peak, Washeshu Creek and Olympic Valley.?

The renaming comes as a result of a nationwide order from the Department of the Interior to replace nearly 650 place names that contained the racist and sexist epithet, fulfilling an order given last year by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Haaland is the first Indigenous person to helm the Department of the Interior. The order declared “squaw” a derogatory term and created a federal task force to oversee the process.

Less than a year after Haaland issued the order, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names published a list of new, approved names for hundreds of lakes, canyons, peaks, creeks, mesas, hills and more.?

“I feel a deep obligation to use my platform to ensure that our public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming,” Haaland said in a press release. “That starts with removing racist and derogatory names that have graced federal locations for far too long.”?

The renaming of Washeshu Peak and Washeshu Creek was included in Haaland’s secretarial order. However, the effort to remove the racist slur from this serene alpine valley just north of Lake 竞技宝入口 began long ago.

From a racist past to a symbolic future

The history of how the slur became affiliated with this land traces back to a newspaper story published in the 1850s. It documented a bloody dispute between white settlers who were traveling through the Sierra Nevada during the Gold Rush and members of the Washoe Tribe who were summering in the valley as they had always done. One person in the group, described in the article as “wild, reckless and dissolute,” shot a Native American woman and killed her. After the murder, the valley carried a name that prominently displayed the slur for more than 150 years.?

About 20 years ago, or even further back by some accounts, the Washoe Tribe approached a ski resort located in that valley, which carried the racist slur in its name, to ask it to change its name. The ski resort ignored the tribe’s request, until 2020.

When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May of that year, and protests rose in the aftermath, a reporter from the Sacramento Bee called the ski resort and asked if it was considering a change to its name, resurfacing the issue. Ron Cohen, who was then president and chief operating officer of the ski resort, told the reporter the ski resort was, indeed, talking about finally making the change.?

“We have a name that this whole group of people is actively working to change throughout the country. They have a reason,” Cohen told me in July 2020, when I interviewed him for a story I wrote for 竞技宝入口 Quarterly. “Of course, we’re going to have that discussion. We’re already having it.”

The month after we spoke, Cohen made the decision official and announced the ski resort would seek a new name. The next year saw an enormous campaign on behalf of the ski resort to find a new name and kick off a top-to-bottom rebranding. The ski resort is now named Palisades 竞技宝入口.?

In its name-changing effort, the ski resort also sought to repair its relationship with the Washoe Tribe. Darrel Cruz, director of historical preservation and a member of the Washoe Tribe, was in touch with Cohen during that time. The tribe supported the ski resort’s decision to change the name, Cruz told me, but it largely left the process of finding a new name to the ski resort. The ski resort gave the Washoe Tribe the chance to rename a chairlift that once contained the offensive slur, which it named Wa She Shu. Meanwhile, the ski resort invited members of the tribe for skiing, snowboarding and other recreational activities. The tribe has also been giving cultural talks to the public at the top of High Camp, a midstation located centrally in the ski resort.

When it announced its new name, Palisades 竞技宝入口 unveiled a new logo that features an eagle. Cruz said the eagle is an important symbol to the Washoe Tribe.?

The eagle “represents many things to the Washoe people,” Cruz said. In one interpretation, the eagle “is the conduit between the people and the creator. So he carries the message to the creator, in one form.”

Eagle feathers, as well, are meaningful to the Washoe Tribe. “We use it for healing,” Cruz said. “We use it for many different things. It is a very sacred animal for the Washoe people.”

‘Wa she shu’ means ‘the people’

The ski resort’s momentum around changing the name reinvigorated Cruz, who took it upon himself starting in 2020 to change the names of geographical landmarks in the valley.?

The racist slur was pervasive — it was on the name of the entire valley, a peak rising in the distance, a creek that meandered through the meadow, road signs and business names that surrounded the ski area.?

Cruz pointed out that the tribe has not only ancient ties to the land but current ones. The Washoe Tribe owns land in the valley, giving it a direct stake in the renaming of these places. Cruz consulted with the tribe’s advisory council and then notified all the land managers and government officials who play a role in this area about his intentions. Then he filed paperwork with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.?

With several prominent geographical features that once held names with the slur officially renamed to Washeshu Peak, Washeshu Creek and Olympic Valley, the decadeslong effort has finally been realized.

“Wa she shu” is the word for “people,” Cruz said. (The Washoe spelling for “wa she shu” separates the words, but the USGS map spells the landmarks as one word.)

“When I say the people’s peak, that would be the Washoe and it could also include the residents, the people, the people of the area. I think we all share some common interests, and this is a good example of that,” he said.?

The new geographical names have an impact on Palisades 竞技宝入口, too. Washeshu Peak is within the ski resort’s boundaries.?

“A year after our own name change, we are thrilled to be joined by so many neighboring destinations and prominent geographic features,” said Dee Byrne, president and COO of Palisades 竞技宝入口, in a statement emailed to SFGATE. “Many of these names now pay homage to the history and culture of this region, which more aptly reflects the values and priorities of our local community. We are proud that Palisades 竞技宝入口 helped to propel this wave of change, and we continue our work with the Washoe Tribe to help honor the past, educate the public, and plan for a stronger future.”
Beyond Lake 竞技宝入口, the Washoe Tribe also worked on name changes for other geographical landmarks that once contained the slur in their ancestral land. Damalusung Lake, situated northwest of Truckee, is another Washoe name.?
“‘Damalusung’ is basically ‘the stars,’” Cruz said. “The reason why is because some of our elders went up there in the nighttime, and you can see the stars. There is no background city lights or anything. It’s all starlight.”

The secretarial order issued by Haaland focused on removing the single slur from U.S. lands. However, the federal task force set up has been charged to look at other offensive words and terms on federal lands. According to a press release, next steps on the project will be announced in the coming weeks.?