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Another Voice: Changing name of island shows Buffalo values unity

By Maurice A. John Sr.

Sitting in the Buffalo Common Council chamber, one can see the words “The People’s Councillors Reflect the People’s Will” carved into the wall. Against this backdrop, the Council recently honored the will and determination of countless people and carried forth a historic and needed change.

The history of the Seneca people is forever tied to this region. This is our home. It has been our home. And this forever will be our home. You can see Native American history, culture and influence reflected throughout the city and region. Yet, for far too long, one of the city’s most beautiful natural settings carried a name of disrespect, shame and hatred for all Native American peoples, and Native American women in particular.

The scandalous name will soon be wiped away, replaced with a name that instead honors the coming together of all people to be of one mind, one community.

It is fitting that the push to bring this issue to the forefront of our community’s conscience was led by strong Native American women who would not be deterred, particularly Jodi Lynn Maracle and Agnes Williams, and countless others also lent their voice to the cause. Their message was met with the open-mindedness, recognition and collaboration of the city’s leaders, particularly Councilman Joe Golombek, who brought the measure to the Council.

With a unified voice, the Council honored the people’s will.

Cultural tolerance and sensitivities continue to be part of the dialogue in communities across the United States, including here in Western New York. Our nation’s Council will continue to support and advocate for this important cause. In changing the name of an island, we can begin to wipe away part of the stain of degradation native people have born for generations.

Native American people everywhere deserve dignity and respect – whether here in our community, on the athletic field or on an island in the Niagara River. As a nation and as Seneca people, we will not and should not accept anything less.

The Seneca Nation strongly believes that the name Ga’nigo:i:yoh – Unity Island – is a fitting and long overdue change. First and foremost, this change rights an egregious wrong and begins to repair the damage of a generations-long insult. It also reflects the place in time in which we find ourselves.

The fortunes of our nation and the fortunes of the City of Buffalo are rising together. Buffalo has set an example for other communities by rebuilding itself – physically and psychologically – into an economic and cultural leader.

In many ways, our governments, our people and our futures are united. Together, we can stand proudly behind the Unity Island decision and send a message that Buffalo is a community of respect, inclusion and unity.

Maurice A. John Sr. is president of the Seneca Nation of Indians.