BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Squaw Island will be called Unity Island following a unanimous vote by Buffalo city lawmakers Tuesday in response to complaints that the 336-year-old name of the Niagara River parkland is racist and sexist.
During a public hearing before the Common Council, all but one of a handful of speakers supported the change.
“To have part of the city named for a term that’s derogatory to our women is disrespectful,” Seneca Nation Tribal Councillor Rick Jemison said before the Common Council’s vote.
The action continues a nationwide movement toward replacing the names of sports teams, symbols and geographical sites with labels now viewed as insensitive or outright offensive. In the nearby suburb of Lancaster, the school board voted in March to do away with its Redskins nickname.
“This city is showing the example to others in the country, whether it be the Confederate flag, whether it be a name, whether it be a word,” Common Council President Darius Pridgen said. “When a group of people feels offended, somebody should at least listen.”
A historic marker at Squaw Island said the 60-acre site was originally called Divided Island by the Seneca Nation, referring to a creek that runs through and divides the land. It was named Squaw Island by the men of LaSalle’s expedition in 1679.
The idea of changing the name has come up in years past but did not gain traction until about two years ago when two Native American women, Jodi Lynn Maracle and Agnes Williams, began lobbying the Common Council and Mayor Byron Brown.
Maracle, a member of the Mohawk nation, left the council chambers in tears Tuesday.
“This is just such a historic, overwhelming moment for so many people,” she said. “And I think that it really shows that with small steps and bringing community together, that positive change is entirely possible for all peoples.”
Seneca Tribal Councillor Tina Abrams refused even to say the old name. Nor would Seneca President Maurice John, who referred to it as “the s-word.”
“What an honor to be here today to change it to Unity,” Abrams said.
Buffalo Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. said his resolution to change the name generated some complaints from people who thought the city was bowing under the pressure of political correctness.
But “I believe that it’s time now to do something,” he said. “And that’s change a name that’s questionable at best to a name that I think that all the residents of the city of Buffalo can feel proud of.”