© 2022 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Buffalo's Squaw Island officially renamed Unity Island

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

The City of Buffalo is officially renaming an island that carried a label deemed derogatory by Native Americans. What was once known as Squaw Island is officially being renamed Unity Island.

Common Council members made it official Tuesday afternoon, following a public hearing portion of their biweekly meeting. When signs are eventually changed, along with Unity Island will be the native phrase "Ga'nigo:i:yoh," which means "one good mind."
"Because our processes are built on consensus-making, not democracy, not majority rules," said Jodi Lynn Maracle, who first approached Common Council member Joseph Golombek with the suggestion two years ago. "They're built on consensus, and so I think that's what really occurred here."

Among the speakers in the public hearing period was Seneca Nation president Maurice John, who pointed out that he served proudly in the U.S. military earlier in his life. But it was from the U.S. military, he said, where the derogatory term "squaw" came to life. He wouldn't even use the word, referring to it only as "the 's' word."

"The same army that represents us today at one time treated Indians unfairly," John said. "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 it makes us feel?"

Only one person spoke in opposition to the name Unity Island. Buffalo resident Robert Chambers suggested the island should be renamed instead in honor of the Kahquah tribe, one he said was wiped out by members of the Five Nations.

"Giving it a name, especially picked by someone from Five Nations, is similar to the Germans telling the Jews what they could name their holocaust site," Chambers said in the public hearing. "Squaw Island is the last thing that remains of the Kahquah holocaust site."

Seneca tribal council member Richard Jemison disputed the claim of genocide outside the meeting, telling WBFO that the Kahquah were not conquered but instead adopted into the Seneca Nation.

In the meantime, Seneca leaders attending Tuesday's meeting said they looked forward to returning to their territory with good news to share.

"This was something that needed to be done, on behalf of all the Seneca women, especially those who take the tough stand every day, and all Indian women in America, especially my wife who taught me the definition of the 's' word, and that's what makes me mad," said President John. "So I can go home and be happy, and she'll be happy."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
Related Content