Recent news stories from Buffalo concerning the proposed renaming of Squaw Island, a designation considered disrespectful to Native American women, are reminiscent of a similar controversy that captured the attention and imagination of Niagara Falls residents, as well as the entire nation, some two decades ago.
At that time, the millions of tourists who crowd the decks of Maid of the Mist tour boats, which have plied the waters of the Niagara River below the falls on and off since as far back as 1846, were subjected to a recording over the PA rendering a suspect account of the traditional Maid legend. The canned "history" talk blaring over the loudspeakers recounted a tale of brave, if slightly reluctant, maidens set adrift in canoes laden with symbolic food offerings above the falls, swept over the mighty cataract in order to appease angry gods who would be inclined to smite Native peoples with suffering and worse should this cruel human sacrifice not be performed.
It is universally held by historians and scholars that never in their history have the Senecas, who consider the Maid legend a sacred parable with respect to their relationship with the Creator, ever participated in human sacrifice.
"Unfortunately, myth has become reality," stated Richard Hill, a Niagara Falls resident and UB history professor in a Sept. 1, 1996 newspaper story headlined "Native Americans ask (Maid of the Mist) Tours to Drop Dubious Tale". "I see it as a real fabrication, a racial stereotype," he added.
"The legend utilized by Maid of the Mist complies with the stereotypes - heathens sacrificing a maid to some superior gods," complained Oneida tribe member and writer Bruce King. "The real legend is about community spirit, moral behavior... and the tragedy of suicide."
"We just want them to tell the true story," said Bill "Grandpa Bill" Swanson, executive director of the state chapter of the American Indian Movement at the time. "We're portrayed as savages. This has got to stop."
Earlier in 1996, author, historian and retired Niagara Falls schoolteacher Paul Gromosiak decided that he'd had enough, and arranged a meeting of local Native American leaders at a Buffalo coffee shop. They discussed strategies to disabuse Maid of the Mist owner James Glynn of his grotesque Maid human sacrifice fiction, which exposed legions of tourists from all over the world to a false and hurtful lie.
Gromosiak and the Native advocates, which included Swanson, Hill, director Alan Jamieson of Nento (a Native American arts and cultural group) and Elwood Green issued a press release, and commenced a letter writing campaign. It immediately resulted in vigorous pushback from Maid of the Mist.
"To accuse us of racism is outrageous," then-Maid Vice President Christopher Glynn declared, "And we are not real anxious to change what we've been doing for 100 years."
Actually, Chris' father James Glynn acquired the company in 1971.
What finally persuaded Glynn and Maid to drop the tasteless defamation was the announcement that the popular TV show "Regis and Kathie Lee" was coming to town to do a show on Niagara Falls and related attractions. Gromosiak sent a letter to the show's producer, which read in part, "(The Maid story) is a misrepresentation of Native Americans given to the public by the Maid of the Mist Corporation. They tell the public about a legend about Native Americans sacrificing young maidens at the falls… Native Americans never sacrificed anyone…"
Things came to a head when Gromosiak and his group threatened to picket the Maid of the Mist docks during the telecast, and on Sept. 5, 1996 Maid capitulated, announcing that they were discontinuing the warped narrative.
According to Gromosiak, the historian and author of over two dozen books on Niagara Falls, Christopher Glynn phoned shortly afterwards to chastise him. "I hope you're happy now, Gromosiak!" chided the multimillionaire tour operator.
"He was mean to me on the phone. His father was not that mean," recollected Gromosiak.
That point is debatable, given that James Glynn ordered the removal of all of Gromosiak's books from the shelves of his Maid of the Mist souvenir and gift shop. That was two decades ago, and despite numerous attempts at reconciliation on Gromosiak's behalf, the ban is still in effect today.