Author: Bennett Collins
Many in Buffalo and particularly in the city’s Black Rock neighbourhood are familiar with ‘Squaw Island’: the island on the Niagara River home to Squaw Island Park, Broderick Park, and the scenic Bird Island Pier. It is also a significant historical site of the Underground Railroad and a battle site during the War of 1812. The 2011 plaque dedicated to the island states:
‘Named Squaw Island by the men of LaSalle’s expedition in 1679, this island was called Divided Island, ‘De-dyo-we-no-hug-doh’ by the Senecas, referring to a division by the marshy creek known as ‘Smuggler’s Run.’ Presented by the Seneca Nation to Captain Parish, agent and interpreter, as a gift in acknowledgement of his services on their behalf, it is the site of troop landings and departures. It is also the site of the beaching, burning, and sinking of the British warship HMS Detroit in the War of 1812.’
While many in Buffalo are very fond of the island for its natural beauty and location for year-round community events, there is reason why the name of the island itself arouses negative connotations that deal with the dark history between the US and its relations with the indigenous peoples of the continent.
The term ‘Squaw’ has been used to name islands, mountains, rivers, and even fish (Colorado Squawfish). However, many are unaware that the term is highly offensive to a vast majority of American Indians due to its racist and misogynistic nature. While the etymology of the word itself is contended to derive from either an Iroquoian word for the female genitalia (otsiskwa) or the Anglo appropriation of Algonquin words relating to females dating back to the 17th century, the term has historically been used to pejoratively refer to Native women, connecting them to promiscuity and treating them as objects of public vilification. The Oxford English, Webster’s, and Mirriam Webster’s dictionaries have all sited the word as an insult, and, since the 1980s, have recorded that the term has become more and more offensive. It is evident that the highly offensive nature of the word has garnered serious attention within the past 20 years. The states of Maine, Montana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Nebraska have passed legislation to eradicate the name ‘Squaw’ and its various spellings from public spaces. This is not the first time either that the US has had to respond to racially offensive words in the public sphere. In 1963, the US changed all geographic names containing the ‘N-word’, and in 1974, legislation was passed to change all names containing the offensive form of ‘Japanese’.
In Buffalo, there is now a push to rename ‘Squaw Island’. In the past two weeks, Jodi Lynn Maracle, a Mohawk PhD student at UB, has begun soliciting signatures for a petition to Councilman Joseph Golombek Jr. that calls on the city council to eradicate the island’s current name. ‘It hurts to have grown up in the city where I had to see ‘Squaw’ on a huge sign every time I drove past the island’, Maracle stated. ‘Many people do not have to think about the word’s meaning, which must be nice.’ The petition has since drawn over 250 signatures and gained national attention through the Native news outlet Indian Country Today.
Attempts to eradicate ‘Squaw’ from public lands have been met with opposition. Many claim the word has no pejorative meaning whatsoever since it is derived from an Algonquin word for ‘wife or female’ and thus is not an insult. However, as a comprehensive report on the meaning of ‘Squaw’ from the Maine Inter-Tribal State Commission points out, the word has gained a more and more offensive meaning over time. ‘Academicians, most of whom seem to believe that the original native forms of the word were neutral, generally agree that “squaw” rapidly came to have a negative, disrespectful, and insulting meaning in its English use.’ Others, on the other hand, do not see the relation between the word and its more misogynistic meaning. During Maine’s push to eradicate ‘Squaw’, Donna Loring, the Penobscot Nation’s tribal representative to the state legislature, stated ‘I can say with 99% certainty, that if you are a Native woman…you have heard the word and felt the sting and pain.’ In addition, just by looking over a list of the 70 geographic places in Arizona with the name ‘Squaw’ included, a person would find places like ‘Squaw Tit’ and ‘Squa Tits’ – clear evidence that the name has become disparaging towards Native women.
Maracle, along with other campaigns that have sought to eradicate the use of the word from public lands, have cited that those in opposition claim the issue to be a matter of political hypersensitivity. However, as Maracle notes, this reaction is a sign of something else. ‘I had a 4th grade teacher tell me that all Indians are dead. Many do not believe we still exist, so our opinions do not seem to matter about what offends us’. While it may seem that the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, and wider Native population of Western New York does not amount to substantial numbers, it remains that there are 14,000 people with tribal affiliation in Erie and Niagara counties alone and that the Tuscarora, Allegheny, Cattaraugus, Tonawanda, and Six Nations (the most populous in Canada) reservations are within earshot of the city. However, to many, it is not a matter of numbers, but rather a matter of ensuring that our city progresses and chooses right over wrong. ‘The name Squaw Island is racist and sexist. The city of Buffalo should honor the legacy of the first nations who live here, not ridicule it with such an offensive term’ said Maria D. of Buffalo, NY. A Native signatory from Niagara Falls stated ‘To remove a derogatory name such as Squaw from the island would be a positive step at the surrounding community to acknowledge that we too are valuable members of society. ’
Storm Knife has placed an enormous amount of national and international spotlight on Buffalo as being a City of Good Neighbors. As our city’s renaissance continues to boom, the question remains whether we as a community will move forward with an inclusive and respectful attitude of all who call themselves Buffalonians. Calling ourselves a City of Good Neighbors goes beyond lending a hand to get through the winter.