Wisconsin Oneida Indians Speak of Their Lives

Friends Newsletter Fall 2005 vol. 3 no. 2

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Wisconsin Oneida Indians Speak of Their Lives


“For the last two years I have been working on the Oneida Language Project, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin here in Oneida. I am very much interested in my work. We are writing all kinds of Indian stories, jokes, and the Oneida history. Someday I hope to see it published in books so that the people can read it and find out for themselves what Oneida people really are--bad or good.” Guy Elm

Guy Elm was one of about a dozen men and women of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin who were employed on two unusual WPA projects from late 1938 through early 1942. While most of the Oneidas who worked on these depression-era public works programs built roads or labored in quarries, Guy and his colleagues interviewed their families and friends and recorded their stories, autobiographical narratives, and observations about Oneida life and history. They translated those interviews that were taken down in the Oneida language into English and added accounts of their own. By the time the project came to an end shortly after the start of World War II they had filled more than two-hundred stenographers’ notebooks with well over 20, 000 pages of precious information. Much of the material was set aside and forgotten. The book Guy Elm hoped to see would not appear for more than 60 years.

The Oneida Language and Folklore Project was conceived and set up by Morris Swadesh, an anthropological linguist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and was directed by an undergraduate student, Floyd Lounsbury, who later became a professor at Yale University and a leading expert on American Indian languages. The material from this research was well known and has been widely used for the study of their language by the Oneida themselves and by linguists interested in American Indian languages since it was first collected. The second project, the Oneida Ethnological Study, had a different fate; the notebooks resulting from the work done from October 1940 to March 1942 were put in a large carton and left in the storeroom of the anthropology department. They rested there until I had the extraordinary good fortune to find them in 1998.

The one-hundred and sixty-seven notebooks in the carton contained remarkable accounts by more than two-hundred women and men, from elders in their ninety's to a few (young) people in their thirties. The narratives cover the spectrum of human activity including birth, death, sex, child-rearing, marriage and family life, schooling, economic activity and survival in hard times, belief and religion, sports, recreation, and more. They are told frankly, often with wit, gumption, and style. This long-hidden treasure is now available to be appreciated both for the stories themselves and for the value of the whole for research into the modern history and social and cultural life of the Oneidas.


Since its discovery, photocopies of all the material from the Oneida Ethnological Study have been made available to the Oneida Nation. Those Oneidas and other researchers who want to consult the original notebooks (and other material, such as hand-drawn maps), can find them at the Area Research Center of the Wisconsin Historical Society on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. And the first book drawing upon the narratives has just been published. Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas (University of Nebraska Press) contains sixty-five autobiographical accounts by fifty-three men and women, representing perhaps ten percent of the total material from the project.


In the narratives, long-lost voices of Wisconsin Oneida men and women are heard once again, presenting a picture of all aspects 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. Aside from their value for research, the stories themselves are often remarkable and beautifully told—and probably quite different from what people will expect. These accounts add a new dimension to our knowledge of the cultures of the Upper Midwest, illuminating the experiences of a group of American Indians whose history is quite different from that of most others in Wisconsin.

Herbert S. Lewis, Emeritus Professor, with the Department of Anthropolgy at University of Wisconsin Madison.

 




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