Buffalo, NY: A Shared Future

New Sign

A new sign was unveiled October 9 at the former Squaw Island reading:


The name Unity Island is credited to Mayor Byron Brown stating it “reflects the significant rebirth that is underway in our city.” The parenthesized word below appears to be a translation but is nearly the opposite. Ga’nigö:i:yoh, a Seneca word meaning “divided island,” is the name given by the Senecas at a time when a creek split the island in two.

The sign itself with its two names, one of history and one of our time, reflects a paradox with Buffalo’s revitalization: How do we move forward in hand with restoring the past?

Articles questioning the legacy of Columbus share space in the dialogue with plans for reuse of the Central Terminal. Local stories about the Lancaster Redskins accompany editorials calling for the burial of the Kensington expressway and the restoration of Humboldt Parkway.

Humboldt Parkway

Ga’nigö:i:yoh, is a Seneca word meaning “divided island,” the name given by the Senecas at a time when a creek split the island in two.

The word “restoration” itself carries with it the implication that an object was correct in its creation, but a mistake at some point carries the necessity to correct the mistake and return the object to its original state. “Resurgence,” “revitalization,” and “rebirth” bare many of the same associations.

With it brings the subjective question: what is correct and at what point was the mistake made? According to an article in The Public by Michael Niman, the myth of Columbus as great discoverer came in 1828. The problems at Lancaster High School began 60 years ago, when it reportedly adopted the racist name for its mascot. Humboldt Parkway met its end in 1958, and the last train left the Terminal, bound for Chicago, at 4:10 a.m. on October 28, 1979.

The mistake at Ga’nigö:i:yoh occurred in 1679 when French explorer Robert de LaSalle and his crew bestowed the name “Squaw Island” upon the land.

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An early map of Black Rock drawn by Peter B. Porter in 1813.

The Word

“Squaw” is a loanword that made its way from Algonquin into English use at the earliest times of settlement in the New World. The word made an appearance in 1622 in the pages of “A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth [sic] in New England” in the context of “…the Squaw Sachem, or Massachusetts queen.” It also appears in a 1663 Massachusetts translation of the Bible serving as a direct translation for female.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the word squaw came into derogatory use but it is not hard to imagine in a society where the English word “woman” itself can be used in a similar fashion. The history of the word says almost as much about gender as it does about race.

In his 1883 book, “Frontier Army Sketches,” James William Steele paints an extraordinarily demeaning portrait of the Native American woman serving as a bleak definition of the word.

“Everywhere and always the men are idle and the squaws at work. The hideous and toothless crone, the picture of unpitied age and misery, is never too old to toil, never old enough to rest. To her and her daughters fall all the endless tasks of a nomadic life. Her place is that of a slave; a slave born and predestined, to whom rest and liberty shall never come. She is beaten, abused, reviled, and driven like any other beast of burden. She is bought and sold; wife, mother and pack-animal, joined in one hideous and hopeless whole – a squaw”.

In a 2000 edition of the Cecil Adams’ column “Straight Dope” the author answers the question of whether or not the word is offensive comically with this insight. “Special terms for minority women are inherently demeaning. Think about it. Negress. Jewess. Sixty years ago these terms were in common use. Now they make your flesh creep. Next picture some pot-bellied slob in a cowboy hat.”

Recent attempts have been made to eradicate the word from maps and signs across the United States. In 1999 Montana set out to remove the word from all local place names. In 2003, Squaw Peak in Phoenix, Ariz. became Piestewa Peak in honor of the first Native American woman to die in combat for the United States.

This past January, North District Councilman Joseph Golembeck Jr introduced a resolution to revert Squaw Island to Deyowengouhdoh, an early phonetic version of the Native name. The effort came after requests from local Mohawk and Seneca community members called to change the name based on its derogatory standing.

The change was made official on July 6 and new signage was unveiled on October 9. At the ceremony Seneca Nation President Maurice A. John Sr. stated, “Together we can move past degradation toward a future of progress and toward unity. Unity Island – Ga’nigö:i:yoh- stands as a symbol of our shared future.”

From the office of the Mayor: Mayor Brown, joined by Seneca Nation President John and North District Council Member Golombek, unveiled the new entrance sign to Unity Island.

From the office of the Mayor: Mayor Brown, joined by Seneca Nation President John and North District Council Member Golombek, unveiled the new entrance sign to Unity Island.

Shared Future

John’s statement returns back to the paradox. How does the future share itself with a wronged past? With the island it means that the name it lost in 1679 can be restored, but only by sharing the space, second tier, to a new name. Similarly. A proposal for the restoration of Humboldt Parkway suggests covering the Expressway so that Olmsted’s defunct thoroughfare rides atop, sharing the space with the road that destroyed it.

For the Terminal, it’s argued that the size bars its return to original use and if it is to be reborn, it demands a new purpose. Some think it would be the ideal location for a new Bills stadium.

Though it may seem incongruous to compare the neglect of architecture and the movement of a sports stadium to the happenings at Unity Island (Ga’nigö:i:yoh), consider the detrimental effects the Kensington Expressway, the exodus of the Bills and the abandonment of the Terminal have had on the East Side, and the city as a whole.

It’s evident in the metaphor granted by the simplicity of the signage at Unity Island (Ga’nigö:i:yoh) that restoration is not straight forward. Turning the city into an anachronistic collage of itself, as romantic the prospect, is not an option. The feats and mistakes of the past can only serve as guidelines, but not direct blueprints for rebuilding. Razing and renovating monuments that stand as symbols of mistakes doesn’t count as eradicating the mistakes themselves.

The sign at Unity Island (Ga’nigö:i:yoh) is a new symbol. One that intrinsically stands for the complications of restoration. It is easy to cover mistakes, stratifying points in time where the surface was altered and each precedent remains, like layers of paint beneath the surface of a new coat. It stands in painting, as in all restoration, that the best practice is often the hardest.  To strip the layers to the base and begin again.


A vinyl decal edits the sign on a train trestle leading to the former Squaw Island. 

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