Should Squaw Valley Change Its Name?

The Tahoe gem has an emerging image problem

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“Squaw … is a reference to an Indian woman who is disposable.”

America is in the midst of a national examination of its public products and symbols. Who we are choosing to honor? Where we are putting those monuments? Who and what is represented on our products? What do these symbols say about us and our collective values? As a result, statues are tumbling. Military bases named in honor of Confederate generals are likely to shed those names. Say goodbye to Aunt Jemima, Eskimo Pies, and Uncle Ben’s Rice.

This scrutiny has turned to skiing. One of our most prominent mountains, as it turns out, memorializes a slur against Native Americans. From the Sacramento Bee:

The owners of Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe are inviting Native American leaders to discuss the use of the ethnic and sexist slur in its name, as the movement to remove symbols of colonialism and indigenous oppression has grown throughout the country.

Beth Piatote, a professor of Native American studies at Berkeley, said that the word “squaw” has been a part of the legacy of violence against Native Americans.

“Squaw, which is a word I hardly can say, is basically like the c-word. It is a reference to an Indian woman who is disposable,” said Piatote …

Darrel Cruz, the director for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Washoe tribe of Nevada and California, has been involved with efforts to remove the word “squaw” from names before. In 2018, his committee helped to rename “Squaw Ridge” in Sierra Nevada to “Hungalelti Ridge,” a Washoe word which means “up there,” and can also mean “Southern Washoe.”

“The term ‘squaw’ was used, actually, throughout history in America to dehumanize the native people,” Cruz said. “By dehumanizing them and attaching a name to them like this, it allows them, in their minds, to be able to commit crimes against them without any guilt. Because they’re no longer a person, they’re a ‘squaw,’ they’re a name.”

I’ll admit I was ignorant of this historical context, but after reading that article, it’s hard to see what Alterra, which owns Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows - as the resort has been known since annexing its neighbor several years ago - has to gain from keeping the name. Yes, renaming things is a pain in the ass and something of a logistical headache, but from a moral and marketing point of view, this is an easy win. The decision, of course, should be considered in consultation with the aforementioned Native American leaders, who ought to be able to provide the insight necessary to determine how essential the change would be from a symbolic point of view.

The Squaw Valley Tram. Photo courtesy of Alterra Mountain Company.

If Alterra does change the name, what should they call the resort instead? The valley in which the ski area sits was long ago renamed “Olympic Valley” in honor of the 1960 Winter Olympics, which the mountain co-hosted. That’s fine as far as a non-controversial, history-nodding tag goes, but it sounds a bit branded to me, like naming it “Doritos Valley” or “Mountain Dew Mountain.” If I had a vote in the Alterra boardroom, I’d say just knock “Squaw Valley” off the front and call the whole operation “Alpine Meadows,” which is about as generic and pleasant-sounding and non-insulting a name as exists for a mountain resort.

Whatever they decide, Alterra should act decisively and quickly. Squaw Valley is a big, important mountain. Along with Mammoth and Steamboat, it is the anchor of Alterra’s destination portfolio and a huge selling point for Ikon Passes. It’s hard to be accused of hyperbole when describing the place: it is one of the greatest lift-served mountains on the continent, an oversized brawling epicenter for the brash freeskiing set. It gets absolutely clobbered with snow. It is a place that every skier must visit. It is glorious, an absolute skier’s Utopia, an alpine wonderland perched above Tahoe, an idyll and escape from everything terrible about the world below. There is no point in persisting with a name that only pulls a shadow over the place.  

Keep it serene. Keep it rad. Change the name.

What about Big Squaw?

It’s easy to call on platinum-chairlift Alterra to reallocate a few marketing dollars toward a mountain rebrand, but, should the name change, where does that leave tiny Big Squaw, Maine? This is a ski area that barely operated or closed entirely for much of the early aughts, and is currently run as a nonprofit by a “Friends of Squaw Mountain” community group. What is a rounding error for Alterra may send this place under for good. As I’ve previously stated, we need to do everything we can to keep cut and operating ski areas in business, because they are all but impossible to replace and very difficult to re-open once closed.

I don’t know how this will sort out, but if Squaw Valley changes its name, this is likely to become an issue for a ski area that is otherwise lost in the remote Maine wilderness.

This is going to be a problem

Parts of the 2020-21 ski season, months away, looks tenuous. Season pass sales are in many cases not going great. Government-mandated capacity restrictions may hobble or even suspend regular resort operations next season. A massive economic downturn could very well delete the discretionary income that Americans use to do things like skiing.

Add this to that avalanche: President Trump’s decision to suspend temporary work visas, including the J-1 program that ski resorts commonly use to staff up, through the end of 2020.

Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association, explained the issue to Boise State Public Radio:

Ski resorts want to hire Americans, Byrd said, but the workers aren’t always nearby.

“Most of our ski areas — whether it’s Jackson Hole or Big Sky — these are located in remote, rural communities where they’re not close to labor pools," Byrd said.

The Ski Areas Association is working with state and federal partners to push for an exception, so businesses can use this visa program this ski season. Resorts usually start filling out visa applications for the winter season in August or September.

“Even with high unemployment, we’re still not going to be able to fill all of our positions this winter without access to J-1 visas,” Byrd said.

The Northeast is dense enough that most ski areas may be able to find folks willing to do the work, particularly if unemployment trends persist. The “Americans won’t do this work” argument is in some way true but also tired. In my experience, many of the local bumps dotted throughout the Northeast have had the same guys running lifts for decades. The problem is that the sentence above is incomplete: “Americans won’t do this work… for crappy wages.” Ski areas may have to ramp pay up a bit to fill their payrolls this winter, providing an interesting real-time experiment in whether flying planeloads of college kids up from South America each winter was a pragmatic solution to a real problem or a cheapskate way to keep base wages low.

This is how you build a ski company

NSAA handed its Lifetime Achievement Award to Peak Resorts founder Tim Boyd recently, drawing up this profile documenting the improbable rise of his empire from Missouri hillocks:

Boyd’s storied tale took shape in 1977, when he was just two years into the real world after earning a Bachelor of Science degree in education and economics while on a Division 1 golf scholarship at University of Missouri-Columbia. Boyd bought Hidden Valley golf course in Wildwood, Mo., near his hometown of Valley Park for a quarter million dollars with the intention to revive the flailing business. Not long thereafter, he paid a visit to his brother in Lake Tahoe, where he braved the rain to explore Homewood Mountain Resort, Calif.

A lightbulb switched on: if droves of skiers came out in these conditions, might they display equal devotion to the sport back home? On that premise, with a hill comparable to the beginner slopes in Tahoe right there on his golf course, Boyd cooked up and executed a plan to offer skiing in Missouri. He opened Hidden Valley in 1982, and when the skiing side of business proved more profitable than the golf revenue, he did it again—developing and opening Snow Creek north of Kansas City, Mo., in 1986.

Kind of amazing for a guy who’s described as being “not much of a skier at all.” I can’t overstate how difficult of an environment Missouri is for a ski resort operator. Unlike the ski areas in the Southeast, which persist in unlikely places like North Carolina because of mile-high mountains, there is no elevation at all in Missouri: Hidden Valley sits at 860 feet; Snow Creek at 1,099 feet. That’s base area altitude, not vertical drop. To make that operation work, you need to be a snowmaking wizard, and that’s exactly what Boyd transformed himself into, unleashing his warlock army across the Northeast, buying one mountain after the next until Vail couldn’t resist and snatched the whole thing up last summer.

The article also touches on the fact that now-bustling Crotched was dormant when Peak bought it. It’s one of Northeast skiing’s best back-from-the-dead stories, and I wish more large ski companies would try the resuscitation trick on good natural ski hills that just need a bit of business sense to thrive. There are plenty to choose from.

This is why ski resorts’ self-published stats are generally useless

I don’t tend to believe ski areas’ advertised skiable-acreage totals, and this article in Ski itemizing the five “biggest” ski resorts in the East explains why. According to this list, these mountains are, in order from smallest to largest: Stratton, Sunday River, Smugglers’ Notch, Sugarloaf, and Killington.

Ski areas’ self-published acreage numbers are notoriously inflated, more at some mountains than others. Killington, for example, simply counts anything within its boundaries as skiable, whether it’s a wide-open trail or a thinned and maintained glade or overgrown forest that would be hard to walk through with a machete, let alone ski. Stratton’s claim of 670 acres is obviously inflated in some way. I’ll admit that I don’t know exactly what 670 acres of skiing would feel like, but I do know that Sugarbush, which is clearly, to anyone who has skied it, far larger, claims only 484 acres. Since both are now owned by the same company, this disparity in claimed size is even more puzzling.

It doesn’t really matter except to help explain why I stopped looking at trail counts or claimed skiable acreage as meaningful measures of a mountain’s size some time ago. If you want to know how big a mountain is, go there and ski it.

Northeast season pass updates (see full chart here):

I’m skipping the full season pass update this week, but I’ll note that Cannon, Waterville Valley, and Cranmore – and their collective White Mountain Superpass – all have June 30 early-bird deadlines.

Elsewhere

New England Ski Journal with a nice overview of how the industry is planning for next season. Protect Our Winters on racial justice.

This week in not skiing

In the summers I usually go to Europe for a week or two and the summer streetlife there is so boisterous and alive, the cafes and the restaurants with their doors and windows wide open and tables spilling out into streets and plazas and everyone immersed in the warm weather, especially in the evenings. It’s such a contrast to the depressing shut-in over-air conditioned American streetscape that it’s always a bit of a downer to come back to this land of summertime mole people. But last week New York flipped the switch on outdoor dining and restaurants responded by commandeering bus lanes and parking spots all over the city, splaying tables and planters and tents about in a great explosion of joyous reinvigorated life. There is always outdoor dining in New York of course but now it is the only commercial dining and after three months shut into our garden shed-sized apartments the city has at long last transformed into the great outdoor city that I always wished it would become and knew it could be. I am not one of these skiers that hates summer and actually I love every single thing about it. Just the simplicity of life and going outside barefoot wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt and the ability to work and write outside and just amble walking or on my bike through the city is a glorious thing. Glorious. And this sudden explosion of life, coinciding as it has with the onset of deep hot summer and the dramatic and sustained decline of Covid deaths in NYC, has been an incredibly uplifting thing to be a part of.


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