Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas

Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas

Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas

Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

In the fall of 1998 the Oneida Tribe was contacted by the provost at the University of Wisconsin-Madison asking the protocol for the university to return to the tribe copies of a cache of handwritten notebooks from the Oneida Ethnological Study of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Professor Herb Lewis, looking for information about an undergraduate student from the 1930s (Floyd G. Lounsbury), found his way into the vast basement storeroom of the anthropology department. It was there that he found a large carton with the word “Oneida” written on its side. While looking through the contents, he was stunned to find 167 spiral steno pads filled with pencil-written texts of different lengths and subjects about the Oneida people.

When Professor Lewis discovered these long-forgotten manuscripts, he recognized their historical value in general as well as their importance to the Oneida people in particular. As chief counsel, I played a small part in the return of a full set of copies to the Oneida Tribe. When notified about them I immediately asked to examine the originals. Within a week I went to Madison at least as excited as Howard Carter finding the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1926 or Napoleon's army discovering the Rosetta Stone in 1799. While those were ancient artifacts, these were relatively recent recorded oral histories of the Oneida people in Wisconsin. The detailed information that had been lost to us for several generations is incalculably more directly connected to us because the informants, transcribers, and translators were of our own living families, both direct and extended. This is our community speaking to us from recent generations.

As a longtime student of world, United States, indigenous, Iroquois, and Oneida history as well as of the Oneida language, I recognized that this find was full of significant implications in law, history, and Oneida culture for our people. During 1939 and 1940, the WPA project, led by the noted linguist Morris Swadesh and his assistant Floyd Lounsbury, then still an undergraduate, collected hundreds of interviews, sto-

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