Squaw Island in northwestern New York will be renamed Unity Island after a unanimous vote Tuesday by Buffalo city lawmakers. The change was made in response to complaints that the name was racist and sexist.
The word Squaw, which originally derives from the Algonquian term for woman, is considered a slur. "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 vote, which was reportedly supported by all but a handful of speakers, the Associated Press reported.
The island was originally known as Divided Island by the Seneca Nation, in reference to a creek running through it. It was renamed Squaw Island after the La Salle Expeditions in 1679. Proposals to change the name had reportedly come up in the past but did not gain popular notice until about two years ago when two Native American women, Jodi Lynn Maracle and Agnes Williams, began lobbying Buffalo's Common Council and Mayor Byron Brown.
"This is just such a historic, overwhelming moment for so many people," Maracle, a member of the Mohawk Nation, said after the vote Tuesday. “And I think that it really shows that with small steps and bringing community together, that positive change is entirely possible for all peoples."
The renaming of the island is just the latest instance of the term being removed from place names across the country. Maine, Arizona, Washington and South Dakota have all renamed places or terms that featured the offending word.
The move comes amid calls around the country for changes to the names of institutions and places considered offensive or derogatory. And Common Council President Darius Pridgen also made reference, at the vote, to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Confederate flag -- deemed a symbol of racism -- after a white man killed nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in an incident that has been termed a hate crime.
"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," he said. "When a group of people feels offended, somebody should at least listen."