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Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas

Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas

by Herbert S. Lewis (Editor), Gerald L. Hill (Foreword by)

In this intimate volume the long-lost voices of Wisconsin Oneida men and women speak of all aspects of life: growing up, work and economic struggles, family relations, belief and religious practice, boarding-school life, love, sex, sports, and politics. These voices are drawn from a collection of handwritten accounts recently rediscovered after more than fifty


In this intimate volume the long-lost voices of Wisconsin Oneida men and women speak of all aspects of life: growing up, work and economic struggles, family relations, belief and religious practice, boarding-school life, love, sex, sports, and politics. These voices are drawn from a collection of handwritten accounts recently rediscovered after more than fifty years, the result of a WPA Federal Writers’ Project undertaking called the Oneida Ethnological Study (1940–42) in which a dozen Oneida men and women were hired to interview their families and friends and record their own experiences and observations.


Selected from more than five hundred biographical narratives, these sixty-five chronicles, told by fifty-eight women and men, present a picture of Oneida Indian life from the 1880s, before the Dawes Allotment Act, through World War I and the Great Depression, to the beginning of World War II. Despite the narrators' struggles against harsh economic conditions, the theft of their land, and neglect, their firsthand histories are rendered with frankness and wit and present a remarkable picture of an era and a people.

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UNP - Bison Books
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The Iroquoians and Their World Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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Oneida Lives

Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.


During these lean years of the Great Depression, the whole nation was hard pressed to furnish employment to its millions of unemployed inhabitants. The result was the national, state, local government officials and every other capable organization was thinking up work or occupations of many types and descriptions. It will take no great stretch of imagination to be convinced that the Indian early became part of this great army of unoccupation.

It was thus then that the University of Wisconsin sponsored what is called a social research project. By a streak of fate (some Oneidas say it was through the intervention of their native God, Dehaluhyawágu), the once eminent but now humble Oneida Indians, a former member of the great Iroquois Confederacy, were given consideration. The project affecting us, the Oneidas, had for its object the recording, for the first time, of the language ... of the Oneidas, in a methodical or scientific manner.

The results from this undertaking were so satisfactory and interesting that a correlated research project, the historical study, was immediately sponsored and approved. This embraces the writing of biography, autobiography, and consulting newspaper and other records. Andrew Beechtree (1941)

Andrew Beechtree was one of more than a dozen men and women of the OneidaTribe of Indians of Wisconsin who were employed for a period of thirty-six months on two unique projects funded by the U.S. government through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). For the first project, the Oneida workers recorded their language through the collection of texts in the form of folktales, anecdotes, jokes, recipes, plant and place names, stories of personal experience, and some observations about historical and contemporary events. The results of this work are well known and have been used by the Oneida themselves and by scholars since that project ended in 1940. The second project, the Oneida Ethnological Study, produced a much larger body of material, more than eighteen thousand pages of handwritten text with information on Oneida life and experience. Unfortunately, it was set aside and forgotten for most of six decades, until its rediscovery a few years ago. This volume contains sixty-five autobiographical narratives by fifty-three different men and women, selected from more than five hundred individual accounts. The following section gives a brief historical account of the Wisconsin Oneida and of the project that produced these remarkable documents.

Historical Background

The Oneidas were one of the five original nations of the Hodenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse, the League of the Iroquois, who inhabited and controlled the great region that is today upper New York State. Although they were strikingly few in number by the standards of world history-probably fewer than fifteen thousand souls-their strategic location and remarkable social and political organization and skill literally placed Iroquoia squarely on the map of colonial North America.

The Five Nations formed a confederacy to maintain peace among themselves and to protect themselves from others. When the French, Dutch, and English came into these lands beginning in the seventeenth century in search of furs, souls, and land, they had to contend with the political and military power of these Indian nations. The presence of the foreigners and their insatiable demand for furs led to greatly enhanced trade and war throughout a vast region. Hunting, trapping, trading, and making war, men of the Iroquoian groups ranged far beyond their own homelands. According to Campisi, the Oneidas alone took furs, booty, and prisoners from the St. Lawrence River Valley to the Carolinas (1974:60), and together with other Iroquois "their influence extended west to Green Bay and Illinois, while to the south they held control through Pennsylvania" (1978:482). "As both France and England knew, their contest for control of the North American continent ultimately would be decided by the choice the Iroquois made between them" (Tooker 1978:418). And Iroquois warriors did, indeed, play significant roles in major and minor conflicts, above all the war between the French and English for control of Canada (the French and Indian War) and the American Revolution. The Iroquois left their mark not only on the history of the United States but also on its culture and consciousness.

Despite being weakened by losses through disease and war, and not infrequently divided by competing interests and alliances in an extremely complex political arena, the Iroquois confederacy maintained its importance until the 1770s and the American War of Independence. That war found different Iroquois groups deeply split and obliged to choose between the opposing forces. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras generally fought with the American settlers while the others took the side of the British Crown and the Loyalists. Being on the winning side in the war did not give the Oneidas any lasting advantages, however, though they did receive some monetary rewards from the new government. Like the other peoples of the league, they suffered the destruction of their villages and many deaths due to violence, disease, and other consequences of the war. The population of all the Iroquois nations was reduced to perhaps five thousand by that time.

After the war the Iroquois were no longer united; their military strength counted for little, and they were unable to play one European power off against the other. They had become only a hindrance to the ambitions of the rapidly growing population of Euro-Americans. They were in the way as the region between the Hudson River and Lake Erie became an area of booming economic growth. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was the gateway to the West, and the whole region was a primary area for economic expansion for the new nation. Farmers moved in, towns and cities were established, trade flourished, and the region became an important center for grain production.

The population of Oneida and Madison counties, the center of Oneida settlement, grew from under 2,000 in 1790 to more than 83,000 in 1820 and 110,000 in 1830 (Hauptman and McLester 2002:24). In contrast, the Oneida population at that time numbered about 600 in 1800 and 1,031 in 1819 (Hauptman and McLester 2002:23), but they were the formal owners of most of the land. The drive to obtain the tribe's lands became paramount for individual settlers and speculators, organized land companies, and the state of New York, and these interests prevailed. According to Vecsey, "in 1783 the Iroquois held half of what is now New York State; by 1842 their property was negligible" (1988:10).

The pressures on the New York Indian groups became intense. Some Oneida sold their land in order to get money to stay alive. Others had the land taken from them through fraudulent treaties and a variety of deceitful practices. "By bribes, threats of dire punishment for refusing to obey the supposed wish of the United States government for such a move, and deliberate misrepresentation of the facts to federal authorities," writes Anthony Wallace, "Seneca and other Iroquois chiefs were brought unwillingly to sign treaties by which some of the reservations were sold to the Ogden Land Company and the State of New York"(Wallace 1970:323-324; cf. Hauptman 1986:18-19 and Hauptman 1999).

The Move to Wisconsin

After the Revolution, the Oneidas were exhausted from almost two hundred years of warfare. They were dislocated, disheartened, disorganized, and at odds with most of their former allies, who had been on the British side during the war. "Alcoholism, murder, suicide, and factionalism all attest to the patterns of disintegration in the post-war period" (Campisi 1974:74-75). Traditional chiefs (sachems), whose offices derived from the matrilineal lineage and clan system, were at odds with the so-called pinetree chiefs, who had achieved their leadership primarily from their personal achievements as warriors, orators, and men of wisdom and generosity.

Factions developed along religious lines, which, according to Campisi, "had at their core a controversy over the degree of acceptance or rejection of white society" (1974:104). The Presbyterian followers of an influential New England missionary, Rev. Samuel Kirkland (known as the First Christian Party), were at odds with the "Pagan Party" of the tradition-minded sachems and others who answered the call of a Mohawk prophet who preached a return to old rituals (Campisi 1974:104).

The religious divisions would become less marked by 1816-17, however, as the result of the missionary activities of a new figure, Eleazer Williams. The descendant of distinguished Mohawk and white forebears, Williams was raised at the St. Regis (Akwesasne) reservation, became an Episcopalian lay preacher, and was designated missionary to the Oneidas in 1816. He soon succeeded in convincing the remaining Presbyterians of the First Christian Party to switch their loyalties to the Episcopal church. Next he converted the members of the Pagan Party, who then took the name Second Christian Party. (Another group was induced to join the Methodist church soon after, and they called themselves the Orchard Party.)

By 1820 the Oneidas held only a tiny fraction of the land in their heartland and were besieged by the state government, the Ogden Land Company, and other speculators who desired their removal to the West. Powerful governmental and private interests wanted to push all the Indians out of New York State and into the far frontier, at least as far as what was then Michigan Territory, west of Lake Michigan, if not all the way to Kansas. At the same time, Eleazer Williams dreamed of creating an Indian empire in the West with himself as its leader. And capable Oneida leaders, such as Chiefs Daniel Bread and Elijah Skenandore, could see no way out for their people other than such a move (Bloomfield 1907:167ff.; Hauptman and McLester 2002:27-28).

The Oneidas were offered land on the frontier in the area west of Green Bay, in what would become the state of Wisconsin in less than thirty years, and about half the members of the tribe decided to accept the offer. Eleazer Williams and Chief Elijah Skenandore (d. 1897) took a group of settlers from the First Christian Party and moved west in 1823, and members of the Second Christian Party and the Orchard Party joined them within a decade. Eventually they were settled on a reservation just outside the small settlement of Green Bay on a block of land that runs from northeast to southwest following a watercourse known as Duck Creek. (The reservation is divided between what became Brown and Outagamie counties.) In 1838, through the Treaty of Buffalo Creek, the reservation was fixed in size at just over 65,400 acres-100 acres for each of the 654 Oneida settlers living there at that time (Campisi 1978:485).


Excerpted from Oneida Lives Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Herbert S. Lewis is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of After the Eagles Landed: The Yemenites of Israel and Jimma Abba Jifar, an Oromo Monarchy: Ethiopia, 1830-1932. L. Gordon McLester III is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, the coordinator of the Oneida History Conferences, and the founder of the Oneida Historical Society. He is the coauthor of Chief Daniel Bread and the Oneida Nation of Indians of Wisconsin and the coeditor of The Oneida Indian Journey: From New York to Wisconsin, 1784–1860. Gerald L. Hill is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and former chief counsel and special counsel for the Oneida Nation.

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