Land and Language: The Struggle for National, Territorial, and Linguistic Integrity of the Oneida People

Article excerpt

The ability to maintain a living community is a functional requirement for the natural transmission of culture and language. The Oneida Indians, aboriginal people of what is now the State of New York, have struggled for more than two centuries to sustain their community and culture. The Oneidas have experienced an aggressive programme of expropriation, the division of their community, and the exile of the majority of their people to Canada and the State of Wisconsin. Only within the last few decades have the Oneidas begun to achieve some success in rebuilding their economic base and in reclaiming some of their native lands, but in the meantime their language has been almost entirely lost. They have attempted to use recent legal victories to rebuild their land base, their community, and their basis for cultural and linguistic transmission, but continue to confront a hostile and intimidating social and legal orientation on the part of the larger community, as well as divisive conflict among themselves. An examination of the case of the Oneidas illuminates the continuing impact of the European expansion into the Americas and of policies and practices that have been inimical to the retention of native cultures and languages.

Keywords: Oneida Indians; language preservation; US Indian policy; indigenous languages

I think once you learn the language you see the world through the Oneidas' eyes, not through English ones, with the values being taught right with the language. The values that are core and central to our culture that have been there before the Europeans came here... When we lose our language, then we are no longer Oneidas. Then we are something else. We may look like Oneidas, we may have a reservation, but we are no longer Oneidas, because we have not our language.

Forrest Brooks, Oneida language teacher, Wisconsin

(interviewed by B. Hlebowicz 9 September 2002)

Linguist Leanne Hinton begins her report of the state of Native North American languages with the grim assessment that of the 209 native languages still spoken in North America, children are only learning 49 of them: 'Year by year the number of language extinctions has increased while the number of children who are speakers has continued to drop' (2008: 351). An examination of the history of the Oneida Indians, of their programmes, goals and aspirations concerning Oneida language and culture, and of the forces arrayed against the Oneida people, illustrates the challenges American Indians have faced that have led to the circumstances Hinton discusses. Such an examination will also, however, serve to demonstrate the persistence and the resilience of native North Americans in the face of these challenges.

Oneida history speaks eloquently to the struggle that the native peoples of North America have experienced in maintaining their languages and their cultures. For two and a half centuries the Oneidas have fought against the implacable forces of an overwhelming European hegemony, which has worked both deliberately and incidentally toward their destruction as a people. Ironically, many Oneidas were among the first allies of the US, siding with the American colonists in their revolution against Great Britain. This fact, however, did not prevent the full force of American rapaciousness being turned on them. Their community experienced physical violence and privation, expropriation, division and extirpation, so that by the twentieth century only a handful of Oneidas remained in their homeland, clinging to tiny patches of unalienated land. The largest groups of Oneidas felt obligated to leave, and migrated to the West or to Canada. The elders and transmitters of culture and language thus became scattered, disunited, and discouraged, so that now there is only a tiny number of native speakers of Oneida, most of them elderly.

Recent decades, however, have seen a resurgence of interest among the Oneidas in their language and in cultural traditions. …