Squaw Island – Why It Matters

On January 19 2015, the United States celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a federal holiday to honor the legacy of one of the most visible and widely quoted men from the American Civil Rights era. As memes and quotes flooded the Twitterverse and Facebook, one kept popping up:

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race… We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population… Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect [that] violence…”

Dr. King wrote these words in his 1963 publication Why We Can’t Wait. In his call for social justice for all, what was frequently lost, as is lost today, is the continuing reality of the denial of the powers and processes that brought the settler-colonial countries of the United States and Canada into being. Dr. King knew that until this very foundation was acknowledged, until the history taught in schools reflected the gruesome truth of events that transpired, until as nations the United States and Canada grieved for the slaughter of Indigenous peoples, there could be no justice, no equality, for anyone living within the bounds of the United States.

Over a year ago I began a push to rename Buffalo, NY’s Squaw Island, which is situated between Fort Erie, ON and Buffalo, NY in the Niagara River. Growing up here, no one could explain to me why the word “squaw” was splashed across a brightly painted train bridge. Or why no one thought to change the name of this island even if the word was not an okay word to use. Or why there was an island named “squaw” situated only 2 miles from a park, a street and a statue dedicated to Christopher Columbus. I didn’t want to have to look at my son and answer him, honestly, if he asked me those questions because I would only be able to answer, “We don’t matter. We are supposed to be dead.”

As the renaming campaign gained media attention, the true colors of the so-called City of Good Neighbors began showing. “If you want to honor Native Americans call it Drunk Island” (totally feel honored). “No one’s had a problem with it up until now” (false – at least twice people have approached city hall to change it; four states have banned the word from public lands and countless locations have changed names). “My family has been here for four generations and damned if I’m gonna let some Indian start changing things now” (Oh! Four generations! My, that’s a long time *eye-roll*). “Why doesn’t she go back to wherever the hell she’s from?” (Here… I’m from here). Naysayers began citing the ever reliable (sarcasm) Urban Dictionary and various other online dictionaries all of which erroneously concluded “There is absolutely no derogatory meaning in the word “squaw” (Go ahead and say it to a Native woman – I’ll wait here).

Much like the controversy surrounding the Washington football team’s mascot, no amount of explanation seemed to dissuade some people from their defense of this name. Not pointing out the 1,200 plus murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada alone (and that figure doesn’t include the women who survived their attacks). Or the fact that two thirds of Native women in the United States will be raped in her lifetime where, in these cases, 86% of perpetrators will be non-Native men. Or the very clear reality that in Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the word is related to our word otsí:skwa – a slang reference for a woman’s genitals.

Instead, people stood in defense of their childhood memories of fishing on an island called squaw. Instead, people stood in defense of their family’s presence here for four generations. Instead, people worried more about what a pain it would be to learn a Seneca word. Which, as many of you know, is a moot point given the fact that no one has a problem with words like Scajaquada, Cattaraugus, Chataqua, Tonawanda, Cheektowaga, Canajoharie or Mississauga, just to name a few.

While neither the names of islands, parks, valleys and mountains, nor names of various sports teams, may be the biggest problem we face today, these appropriations of who we are, these excuses to tell us what matters to us, what our own words mean, how we should feel and whether or not we have a right to be offended, stand testament to and celebrate the genocide committed on Turtle Island and the ongoing attacks against our people, lands and resources.

Did I cry when I looked at the name Squaw Island? Heck no.

Did I cry every time I realized that if we can’t even get a simple name change, that if people couldn’t respect what it means in our languages and the image it perpetuates of our women as sexually violable, rape-able, meaningless sex objects – that a safe future for Native women is near impossible? Yes. Absolutely.

While Dr. King wrote Why We Can’t Wait in 1963 about a specific moment in African-American history, he didn’t write and act for only the rights of Black peoples, but for the rights of all peoples swept to the wayside by the powers that be. He called upon people to embrace the fact that “the time is always ripe to do right.” And I say the same. Each day, in some small way, we can do right. Yes, changing a name is something small, but it is right. These words embody the belief that we are an inferior race, that we are doomed to disappear, that someday, we will simply fade away. And I’m happy to say, we are still here and I will never have to answer my son’s question as to why there is a Squaw Island. I might have to explain what the new old name Dejo:wé:nogáhdöh means (Divided Island before you ask), but I can handle that.

Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Jodi Lynn Maracle is Kanien’keha:ka ne Kenhteke, working towards her PhD at the University at Buffalo while studying Kanien’keha and hanging out with her super awesome son.

By Jodi Lynn Maracle

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