So, here’s an idea. Rather than get tied up in knots over the request by two female Native Americans to rename Squaw Island, let’s just do it. It’s a reasonable request that shouldn’t be the least bit controversial.
Jodi Lynn Maracle, a Mohawk, and Agnes Williams, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, made the request to the Buffalo Common Council last week, noting that the term squaw is an offensive and disparaging reference to women in the Native American community. Many non-Indians may not have known that in decades past, believing the word to be as innocuous as “lady” or any other largely neutral description of a woman. But it is offensive and while the island may have been named with no ill intent – the name goes as far back as 1813, according to Maracle’s research – we understand differently today. So change it. Why not?
The 60-acre island sits in the Niagara River, just off Buffalo’s Black Rock section. For years it was used as a garbage dump, but it has since been capped and turned into a park with picnic tables and bicycle paths. It’s an attractive place that deserves an attractive and non-offensive name.
No doubt, there are those who will argue to keep the name, protesting that too many people are too sensitive about too many things. That may be true, but not in this case.
We all know of the hurtful names applied to all sorts of people – Italians, Irish, Arabs, French, Germans, African-Americans and more – and no one would think of using one of those words as part of an official name for a public place. And if it were so named, the designation would not long survive – and appropriately not. In fact, in 2000, the state of Maine banned the word squaw from the names of places such as mountains and brooks.
It should be no different for Squaw Island. Call it something else: Mohawk Island. Erie Island. Frontier Island. Park Island. The possible names that are preferable to the existing one are virtually endless.
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. said he would like to see the island renamed based on input from Native Americans.
It’s a fine idea, which we would take a step further: The city should nominate a group of Native American women to propose a new name for the island. After all, they are the ones most discomfited by the existing name. Allow them the privilege of leading the effort to rechristen this prominent piece of land.
There could be some technicalities involved, one of which – oddly enough – is that the island may never have been legally transferred to the state of New York and may, in fact, be owned by the Seneca Nation of Indians.
However that turns out, it would be appropriate to move speedily on this issue. We know the name is offensive. Let’s offer some respect to the Native Americans who live here and just do the right thing.