Oneida (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Oneidatmp2022_thumb, "People of the Standing Stone," one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois League. Their name refers to a large boulder near their main village. The name Iroquois ("real adders") comes from the French adaptation of the Algonquian name for these people. Their self-designation was Kanonsionni, "League of the United (Extended) Households." Iroquois today refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee, "People of the Longhouse."

Location The Oneida were located between the Mohawk and the Onondaga, between Lake Ontario and the upper Susquehanna River, and especially around Oneida Creek. At the height of their power, the Iroquois controlled land from the Hudson to the Illinois Rivers and the Ottawa to the Tennessee Rivers. Today most Oneidas live around Green Bay, Wisconsin; in Ontario, Canada; and around Oneida and the Onondaga Reservation in New York.

Population There were perhaps 15,000-20,000 members of the Iroquois League around 1500, and roughly 1,000 Oneidas in the mid-seventeenth century. In the early 1990s, there were 11,000 members of the Wisconsin Oneida tribe, 4,600 Oneidas in Ontario, and about 700 in New York. The total number of Iroquois Indians approached 70,000.

Language The Oneida spoke a Northern Iroquois dialect.

Historical Information

History The Iroquois began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1450 and 1600. It originally consisted of five tribes: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca; the Tuscarora joined in the early eighteenth century. The league’s purpose was to end centuries of debilitating intertribal war and work for the common good. Both Deganawida and Hiawatha may have been actual or mythological people.

Iroquois first met non-natives in the sixteenth century. During these and subsequent years, the people became heavily involved in the fur trade. Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized the period. Although they were good at playing the European powers off against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars and were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French.

In the late seventeenth century, battles with the French and allied Indian tribes as well as disease epidemics severely reduced the Oneidas’ already small population. As much as two-thirds of the tribe in those years was made up of enemies such as Hurons and Algonquins. Following the Tuscarora wars in 1711-1713, people of that tribe began resettling on Oneida land. The Oneida sponsored the Tuscarora tribe as the sixth member of the Iroquois Confederacy in the early 1720s. Some Oneidas began to drift into the Ohio Valley as early as the mid-eighteenth century. By that time, longhouse living had seriously declined, with houses of nuclear families taking their places.

The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the balance of power in the region. Despite the long-standing British alliance, some Indians joined anti-British rebellions as a defensive gesture. From 1767 on, evangelical missionaries provided a theoretical/religious basis for the new Pine Tree Chiefs/warriors, such as the Susquehannock Shenendoah, to oppose the traditional chiefs. The missionaries attacked traditional religion and politics, and in this were aided by the warriors, who saw a way to topple control by the clan mothers and traditional chiefs. The 1760s were also a time of famine, increased pressure from non-natives for land, and growing alcohol abuse, all of which provided fertile ground for the missionaries and their new converts.

The confederacy split its allegiance in the Revolutionary War, with most Oneidas (and Tuscaroras), after a period of neutrality, siding with the patriots at the warriors’ urging. This split resulted in the council fire’s being extinguished for the first time in roughly 200 years. Oneidas participated in American attacks on Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca villages. The Iroquois suffered a defeat in 1779 that broke the power of the confederacy. The Oneida ended the war a scattered people, alienated from their fellow Iroquois, with little food and their traditional social, political, and economic systems in ruins.

The Oneidas welcomed two more groups of Indians in the late eighteenth century. Stockbridge Indians arrived to build the community of New Stockbridge, New York, in 1785. Three years later, a group of Mohegans, Mahicans, Narragansetts, Pequots, Montauks, and other Algonquian Indians, as well as some Oneidas, formed the Brothertown Community near New Stockbridge.

Following the Revolutionary War, New York state and the new U.S. government guaranteed the territorial integrity of nearly six million acres of Oneida land. However, the Oneida bowed to pressure and sold most of their lands in New York, gradually relocating westward. Under the influence of an Episcopal missionary and despite the objections of most Oneidas, about half of the tribe settled around Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the 1820s and 1830s, on land they purchased from the Menominee tribe. Following the Treaty of Buffalo Creek (1838), which called for the removal of all Iroquois from New York to Kansas, other Oneidas moved to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada; the Thames River near London, Ontario; the Onondaga Reservation near Syracuse; and their original territory near Utica.

The Iroquois council officially split into two parts during that time. One branch was located at the new Six Nations Reserve and the other at Buffalo Creek. Gradually, the reservations as well as relations with the United States and Canada assumed more significance than intraconfederacy matters. In the 1840s, when the Buffalo Creek Reservation was sold, the fire there was rekindled at Onondaga.

In Wisconsin, most people practiced Christianity, with few elements of their traditional religion. Political leadership was based mainly on personal qualities and affiliations, although a hereditary council maintained considerable power. Most land had been allotted by 1908; as usual, the allotments were lost through tax default and foreclosure. At the same time, municipal governments began to replace the tribal structures. Although many people left the community permanently or seasonally to find work, Indian life remained centered on family, medicine societies, church, and several associations.

The Oneida community in Ontario reestablished the traditional tribal council shortly after they arrived in 1839 (although most power was exercised by a general assembly). Clan leaders also represented the tribe at the Council held at the Six Nations Reserve. Kinship ties and traditional medicine societies remained strong. Most people farmed throughout the nineteenth century, with perhaps seasonal lumbering in winter. In the twentieth century, the economic focus shifted to wage labor in white communities. This development led to increased factionalism and the eventual creation of a parallel tribal council supported by adherents of the Longhouse religion. After a third faction arose in the 1930s, the Canadian government unilaterally mandated an elective system. With other members of the confederacy, the Oneida have tried to resist governmental intrusions on their sovereignty.

Religion The Oneida recognized Orenda as the supreme creator. Other animate and inanimate objects and natural forces were also considered of a spiritual nature. They held important festivals to celebrate maple sap and strawberries as well as corn planting, ripening (Green Corn ceremony), and harvest. These festivals often included singing, male dancing, game playing, gambling, feasting, and food distribution.

The eight-day new year’s festival may have been most important of all. Held in midwinter, it was a time to give thanks, to forget past wrongs, and to kindle new fires, with much attention paid to new and old dreams. A condolence ceremony had quasi-religious components. Medicine groups such as the False Face Society, which wore carved wooden masks, and the Medicine, Dark Dance, and Death Feast Societies (the last two controlled by women) also conducted ceremonies, since most illness was thought to be of supernatural origin.

In the early nineteenth century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake. This religion was born during the general religious ferment known as the Second Great Awakening and came directly out of the radical breakdown of Iroquois life. Beginning in 1799, the Seneca Handsome Lake spoke of Jesus and called upon Iroquois to give up alcohol and a host of negative behaviors, such as witchcraft and sexual promiscuity. He also exhorted them to maintain their traditional religious celebrations. A blend of traditional and Christian teachings, the Handsome Lake religion had the effect of facilitating the cultural transition occurring at the time. Among the Oneida, however, this movement lost out to a revitalization of traditional religious beliefs in the early nineteenth century.

Government The Iroquois League comprised 50 hereditary chiefs, or sachems, from the constituent tribes. Each position was named for the original holder and had specific responsibilities. Sachems were men, except where a woman acted as regent, but they were appointed by women. The Oneida sent nine sachems to meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies. Their symbol at this gathering was the great tree.

Debates within the great council were a matter of strict clan, division, and tribal protocols, in a complex system of checks and balances. Politically, individual league members often pursued their own best interests while maintaining an essential solidarity with the other members. The creators of the U.S. government used the Iroquois League as a model of democracy.

Locally, the village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders (clan chiefs, elders, wise men). Matters before the local councils were handled according to a definite protocol based on the clan and division memberships of the chiefs. Village chiefs were chosen from groups as small as a single household. Women nominated and recalled clan chiefs. Tribal chiefs represented the village and the nation at the general council of the league. The entire system was hierarchical and intertwined, from the family up to the great council. Decisions at all levels were reached by consensus.

There were also a number of nonhereditary chiefs ("pine tree" or "merit" chiefs), some of whom had no voting power. This may have been a postcontact phenomenon.

Customs The Oneida recognized a dual division, each composed of probably three matrilineal, animal-named clans. The clans in turn were composed of matrilineal lineages. Each owned a set number of personal names, some of which were linked with particular activities and responsibilities.

Women enjoyed a high degree of prestige, being largely equated with the "three sisters" (corn, beans, and squash), and they were in charge of most village activities, including marriage. Great intravillage lacrosse games included heavy gambling. Other games included snowsnake, or sliding a spear along a trench in the snow for distance. Food was shared so that everyone had roughly the same to eat.

Personal health and luck were maintained by performing various individual rituals, including singing and dancing, learned in dreams. Members of the False Face medicine society wore wooden masks carved from trees and used rattles and tobacco. Shamans also used up to 200 or more plant medicines to cure illness. People committed suicide on occasion for specific reasons (men who lost prestige; women who were abandoned; children who were treated harshly). Murder could be revenged or paid for with sufficient gifts.

Young men’s mothers arranged marriages with a prospective bride’s mother. Divorce was possible but not readily obtained because it was considered a discredit. The dead were buried in a sitting position, with food and tools for use on the way to the land of the dead. A ceremony was held after ten days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.

Dwellings The main aboriginal village, Oneniote, had over 60 longhouses and was palisaded. The people built their villages near water and often on a hill after circa 1300. Some Iroquois villages had up to 150 longhouses and 1,000 or more people. Villages were moved about twice in a generation, when firewood and soil were exhausted.

Iroquois Indians built elm-bark longhouses, 50-100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the twelfth century on. They held around 2 or 3 but as many as 20 families, related maternally (lineage segments), as well as their dogs. There were smoke holes over each two-family fire. Beds were raised platforms; people slept on mats, their feet to the fire, covered by pelts. Upper platforms were used for food and gear storage. Roofs were shingled with elm bark. Painted animal figures marked the clan of the inhabitants. The people also built some single-family houses.

Diet Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. Corn was the staple and was used in soups, stews, breads, and puddings. It was stored in bark-lined cellars. Women also gathered a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, fruits, and mushrooms. Tobacco was grown for ceremonial and social smoking.

After the harvest, men and some women took to the woods for several months to hunt and dry meat.

Men hunted large game and trapped smaller game, mostly for the fur. Hunting was a source of potential prestige. They also caught waterfowl and other birds, and they fished. The people grew peaches, pears, and apples in orchards from the eighteenth century on.

Key Technology Iroquois used porcupine quills and wampum belts as a record of events. Wampum was also used as a gift connoting sincerity and, later, as trade money. These shell disks, strung or woven into belts, were probably a postcontact technological innovation.

Hunting equipment included snares, bow and arrow, stone knife, and bentwood pack frame. Fish were caught using traps, nets, bone hooks, and spears. Farming tools were made of stone, bone, wood (spades), and antler. Women wove corn-husk dolls, tobacco trays, mats, and baskets.

Other important material items included elm-bark containers, cordage from inner tree bark and fibers, and levers to move timbers. Men steamed wood or bent green wood to make many items, including lacrosse sticks.

Trade Oneidas obtained birch-bark products from the Huron. They imported copper and shells and exported carved wooden and stone pipes as well as dried salmon. They also raised and traded ginseng with other tribes. They were extensively involved in the trade in beaver furs from the seventeenth century on.

Notable Arts Men carved wooden masks worn by the Society of Faces in their curing ceremonies. Women decorated clothing with dyed porcupine quills or moose-hair embroidery.

Transportation Unstable elm bark canoes were roughly 25 feet long. The people were also great runners and preferred to travel on land. They used snowshoes in winter.

Dress Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore shirts and short breechclouts and a tunic in cooler weather; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn-husk slippers in summer. Robes were made of lighter or heavier skins or pelts, depending on the season. These were often painted. Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively. Men often wore their hair in a roach; women wore theirs in a single braid doubled up and fastened with a thong. Some men wore feather caps or, in winter, fur hoods.

War and Weapons Boys began developing war skills at a young age. Prestige and leadership were often gained through war, which was in many ways the most important activity. The title of Pine Tree Chief was a historical invention to honor especially brave warriors. Oneidas were known as particularly fierce fighters. In traditional warfare, large groups met face to face and fired a few arrows after a period of jeering, then engaged in another period of hand-to-hand combat using clubs and spears. Population losses were partially offset by the adoption of captives. Former enemies became Oneidas because they were brought in to fill specific roles in specific lineages; the clan mothers could order the death of anyone who did not do what was expected of him.

Weapons included the bow and arrow, ball-headed club, shield, rod armor, and guns after 1640. All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. War could be decided as a matter of policy or undertaken as a vendetta. Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether or not to fight. During war season, generally the fall, Iroquois war parties ranged up to 1,000 miles or more. Male prisoners were often forced to run the gauntlet: Those who made it through were adopted, but those who did not might be tortured by widows. Some captives were eaten.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The checkerboard Oneida Reservation (established in 1838) is located in Brown and Outagamie Counties, Wisconsin. In the mid-1990s it contained roughly 2,500 acres, most of which had been repurchased since the 1930s by the federal government. The 1990 Indian population was 2,447. The community is governed under an Indian Reorganization Act constitution by an elected business committee, which itself is subject to the general assembly.

The New York Oneida community owns 32 acres of land in Madison County, near Oneida. The land, acquired in 1794, is not recognized as a reservation by either the state or federal governments. The 1990 Indian population was 37, but about 700 live in the community at large. Some Oneidas also live on the Onondaga Reservation, New York.

Ontario Oneidas live on the Six Nations/Grand River Reserve (1,800 Indian residents in the mid-1990s) and Oneida of the Thames, near London (2,800 Indian residents in the mid-1990s). The Six Nations/Grand River Reserve was established in 1784. It is governed by both an elected and a hereditary council, although only the first is federally recognized. In 1934, Canada mandated a political system consisting of elected councilors and an elected chief, although adherents of the Longhouse religion maintain their own hereditary council.

Economy The two U.S. communities have gaming establishments. The proceeds go in part to reacquiring land, building new facilities, and sponsoring activities. The Wisconsin tribe employs 2,000 tribal members in its various enterprises, including a hotel. The Canadian Oneidas are largely dependent on government funding.

Legal Status The Oneida Nation of New York and the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin are federally recognized tribal entities. The Oneida people in all three communities are involved in an extended lawsuit over land against two New York counties.

Daily Life Descent is bilateral in Wisconsin, where most Oneidas are either Episcopalians or Methodists. Some follow the Longhouse religion. Few people speak Oneida, although the tribal school teaches classes in the native language. Important crafts include beadwork, wood carving, and silver work. There is an annual powwow.

Although most people are Christian, there are also many adherents of the Handsome Lake religion among the Ontario Oneida community. Descent is patrilineal by Canadian law, and clan identification has lost much of its significance.

In New York, leadership has been in dispute since at least the 1950s, when a newly organized elective system was more or less successfully challenged by traditionalists. Sachems and clan mothers now hold the leadership positions. Most members are Christians, although many are also members of the Longhouse religion. The nation operates a health center, youth and elderly programs, and a housing development. Facilities include a pool and recreation center and a museum/cultural center. The community also publishes a newsletter. Some New York Oneidas still speak the language.

The political structure of the Iroquois League continues to be a source of controversy for many Iroquois (Haudenosaunee). Some recognize two seats—at Onondaga and Six Nations—whereas others consider the government at Six Nations a reflection of or a corollary to the traditional seat at Onondaga. Important issues concerning the confederacy in the later twentieth century include Indian burial sites, sovereignty, gambling casinos, and land claims. The Six Nations Reserve is still marked by the existence of "progressive" and "traditional" factions, with the former generally supporting the elected band council and following the Christian faith and the latter supporting the confederacy and the Longhouse religion.

Traditional Iroquois Indians also celebrate at least ten traditional or quasi-traditional ceremonies, including the midwinter, green corn, and strawberry. Iroquois still observe condolence ceremonies as one way to hold the league together after roughly 500 years of existence. Many Iroquois continue to see their relationship with the Canadian and U.S. governments as one between independent nations and allies, as opposed to one marked by paternalism and dependence.

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