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Farewell, Squaw Island. Hello, Unity Island

Another vestige of what some see as a slur against Native Americans has fallen in Western New York.

The Common Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to change the name Squaw Island to Unity Island, following a public hearing at which members of the Seneca Nation of Indians and others appealed to lawmakers after nearly two years of petitioning for the change.

“The current name is derogatory and offensive to Native and Seneca women,” said Tina Abrams, a tribal councilor with the Seneca Nation in Allegany County.

“The Seneca Nation strongly believes that the name Ga’nigo:i:yoh, Unity Island, is a fitting and long overdue change,” said Abrams. She added that the name change would not only begin to repair generations of damage, but also demonstrate that “Buffalo is a community of respect, inclusion and unity.”

North Council Member Joseph Golombek, who sponsored the legislation, said he was first approached two years ago by members of the Seneca Nation and Jodi Lynn Maracle, a member of the Tyendinaga Mohawk tribe, who sought his support for the name change.

“They did what you do in a city in government. They petitioned the governing body – the Common Council – and lobbied the mayor ... to change the name,” Golombek said.

He said they discussed alternatives, and though he preferred the original name for the 60-acre park separating the Niagara River from the Black Rock Canal just north of Broderick Park, he eventually agreed that Unity Island represented a positive change. The original name for the island was Divided Island, or Deyowenoguhdoh in the Seneca language.

Golombek said it time “to change a name that’s questionable, at best, to a name that I think all the residents of the City of Buffalo can feel proud of and to something that we can all strive to be.”

Not everyone who spoke at the public hearing agreed that the name was appropriate.

Robert Chambers, a Riverside resident, balked at the idea of any members of the original Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy being involved in the renaming of the island which, he said, once was inhabited by a tribe called the Kahquahs that was wiped out by the Iroquois in the late 1700s.

“Personally, I think it’s ridiculous that anyone from Five Nations would be involved in renaming the island because that’s originally the land of the Kahquahs. They were the only nonviolent, peaceful tribe known in North America,” Chambers said.

“I think if you’re going to rename it, name it after this nonviolent tribe, the Kahquahs,” he added.

Seneca Nation President Maurice A. John Sr. said the use of the term squaw is not only racist, but a disrespectful slur towards Native American women.

“The same army that represents us today at one time treated Indians unfairly. They used to capture Indian women and use them for their own purposes. That was the beginning of the ‘S’ word. How do you think that makes us feel?” John said.

Rick Jemison, a legislator with the Seneca Nation in Cattaraugus, said the connotations are especially egregious because the Seneca are a matrilineal society.

“Our last names are from our mother’s side, not like English names ... We have clans that follow the mother’s lineage ... So to use a derogatory name towards women is really hurtful to us,” Jemison said.

“A bad thing was done in 1838, when this land was taken from us ... We never regained the title to this land, but I think that today something could be done. There’s an old saying, ‘there is never a wrong time to do the right thing,’ ” he added.