The name Squaw Island is firmly in the past, after Mayor Byron W. Brown signed a bill Monday ratifying the Common Council’s unanimous decision to rename it Unity Island – or Ga’nigo:i:yoh (pronounced ga’-nego-e-yah) Island in the Seneca language.
Attending the bill-signing ceremony in the mayor’s office were Maurice A. John Sr., president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, and North District Council Member Joseph A. Golombek Jr., who worked with members of the community on the name change.
Brown said he was “honored and proud” to sign legislation establishing the new name.
“It honors the legacy of our Native American brothers and sisters who are forever tied to our city and our region. It continues the national dialogue to support cultural tolerance and respect for diversity,” said Brown.
He added that the name change “reflects the unity that we continue to build in Buffalo.”
“It’s one reason I suggested the name Unity Island, which was quickly embraced,” added Brown, who unveiled the name in his State of the City address after some had proposed restoring the original Seneca name, which translated as Divided Island.
The Council two weeks ago voted 9-0 to change the name, 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.
Over that time, Golombek worked with advocates of a new name for the 60-acre park separating the Niagara River from the Black Rock Canal just north of Broderick Park.
“We proposed going back to the original name, which was Divided Island, which I sort of liked better than the mayor because I’m an old history guy and I like the historical name,” Golombek said.
“The mayor thought Unity Island was a better name and I understood why. It’s a new day and a new age and people are coming together,” he added.
John thanked the mayor “on behalf of the Seneca Nation, all Native women and women in general.”
During the public hearing two weeks ago in Council chambers, John said the use of the term “squaw” is not only racist, but a disrespectful slur toward Native American women.
With the name change, “we are definitely making a historic statement,” John said Monday.
Brown also lauded Golombek for taking the lead in championing the issue. The Council member acknowledged that the name change was not universally popular, but said it was the right thing to do.
“I think that what we need to do is we need to educate people on terminology and why certain things are offensive to a large number of people in the community,” Golombek said.
Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Recreation Andy Raab said crews have begun removing existing signs with the name Squaw Island in anticipation new signage that will soon go up. Information about the cost of replacing the signs was not available Monday.