Oneida Culture

The Oneida Tribe are members of the League of the Iroquois, a confederacy of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk based on mutual non-aggression. At a later date, the Tuscarora joined the Confederacy. The Oneida’s traditional territory is in upstate New York. The Oneida refer to themselves as Oneyoteaka, "People of the Standing Stone." According to Oneida traditions, there was always a large, red boulder near the main Oneida village. Oneida Creek and Oneida Lake in north-central New York state were the principal areas of the Oneida homeland.

Traditionally, Iroquois people were strongly agricultural, raising corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and other crops. Iroquois populations were concentrated in settled villages of multifamily or clan houses with agricultural fields, which shifted every 10 to 12 years. Village and house size varied widely. Hunting, fishing, and gathering activities extended into groups' respective territories. Important gathered resources included nuts, berries, roots, and wild greens. The seasonal round and settlement pattern included large winter villages with multifamily longhouses based on lineages or perhaps clans; large, perhaps multivillage gatherings at spring fishing spots; dispersed summer farming hamlets with single family dwellings and larger communal structures and chiefs' houses; and dispersed fall and winter hunting camps. Green Corn and other harvest festivals were integrated into the seasonal round.

Iroquois societies were strongly matrilineal: Women controlled agricultural lands, the election of leaders, and, to some extent, warfare. Strong clans provided an organizing framework for social relations both within and between groups. Trade relationships existed between different villages and between different Iroquois tribes as well as with the Mahican for shell beads and other coastal products. The gender-based division of labor made women responsible for agricultural work and housekeeping, while men hunted, fished, and traded, although there were also women traders. Government, warfare and raiding on neighboring groups were also male activities although the clan mothers heavily influenced decision-making.

Among all of the Iroquois groups, wood, elm bark, basswood, and cornhusk were important raw materials. Large, cylindrical mortars were used with double-end pestles to grind corn into meal. Spoons, bowls, ladles, and mush paddles were also made of wood, as were masks used in the False Face ceremonies. Wood was steamed and shaped for snowshoe frames, cradleboards, toboggans, basket rims and handle, and lacrosse sticks. Splints made of wood, particularly black ash, were used to make a variety of plaited baskets which were important in sifting ground corn and rinsing corn which was processed with wood ashes to make hominy. The inner bark of basswood and other trees was made into rope and cordage by men, and women gathered, prepared and used fibers of hemp, milkweed, and nettle to make burden straps, twine, and rope. Elmbark was folded to make containers, used to cover longhouses, and fashioned into rattles and many other items. Cornhusks were used to make mats which covered bedframes inside the longhouses, used to stuff moccasins for extra insulation, woven into small basketry bottles to hold salt, and used to make children’s dolls. A specific type of mask was also woven from cornhusks.

Traditional clothing probably consisted of leather breechcloths for men and long wraparound skirts for women. Both wore moccasins and probably wore deerskin ponchos or a deerskin robe with the fur on during cold weather. For special occasions, garments could have painted decorations or be decorated with porcupine quill or moosehair embroidery.

Contact with Europeans and Early History

The period of initial European contact with Iroquois groups, specifically the Mohawk, began via secondhand trade from the St. Lawrence, established by 1609. However, Seneca archaeological sites in western New York from 1550-1575 show small amounts of European trade goods, which may have come secondhand from the Atlantic or from the St. Lawrence. These include iron axes and knives, brass ornaments (presumably made of cut-up kettles), and a few glass beads. By about 1630, Iroquois groups were involved in the fur trade, both trapping beaver and other animals on their own and acting as middlemen between European traders and members of other tribes.

During the earliest contact, Iroquois population remained stable. Initial contact and European trade had substantial effects only on Mohawk and, to a lesser extent, the Seneca, and other Iroquois groups were strongly affected by Europeans only after the mid-17th century. Until that time, their populations and internal relations were relatively stable, with their subsistence, settlement pattern, and land use practically unchanged from earlier times.

The presence of Europeans and their trade goods brought about changes in the organization of Iroquois societies by altering ideas about trade with other groups. While trade was individual, groups competed and attempted to limit travel of members of other groups through their territories in order to control the trade. Men and women both were active in the trade, and traveled extensively within their own territories and those of other groups to trade. For those participating more directly in the fur trade, hunting of fur-bearing animals increased. Trade goods themselves -- especially utilitarian wares such as knives, axes, and the like -- were added to local material inventories, but did not replace their Native counterparts.

Missionaries, Conversion to Christianity, and Changes

As fur resources within Iroquois territories became trapped out around 1630, Iroquois groups attempted to maintain control of the fur trade as middlemen through conquest of other groups and exacting tribute from them. After 1650, Iroquois attacks on Native groups in Northern New England, as did military ventures against Canadian Algonkian groups and Native people in the upper Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley. These depredations were accompanied by internal problems within the League of the Iroquois as the Mohawk attempted to control trade and political affairs. Western Iroquois groups began to make alliances with the French to fortify their economic positions while eastern Iroquois groups played the English and Dutch off against each other. After the Dutch surrendered their New York holdings to the English in 1664, the Iroquois made peace with the English, which sparked fighting between the Mohawk and their Mahican neighbors.

The influx of European traders brought more than trade goods: By the 1660s, all Iroquois groups had suffered multiple major epidemics of introduced European diseases, including smallpox. At the same time, French Jesuits also visited and settled among the Iroquois tribes, attempting to convert as many as possible to Catholicism. These were not particularly successful among the Oneida, despite the creation of the mission of St. François Xavier established there in 1667. The main Oneida village was burned by the French in 1696, and the French also established a small military force at Onondaga in 1711. Following the Tuscarora Wars (1711-13), a number of Tuscarora joined the Oneida. Moravian missionaries also lived among the Onondaga between 1750 and 1755, and, by this time, traditional extended family longhouses had given way to villages of nuclear family cabins.

Between 1689 and 1763, the French and British fought a series of four wars for control of North America. The final conflict, the French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years' War), lasted from 1754 to 1763. During this war, the League of the Iroquois sided with the British, while a number of Great Lakes tribes allied with the French. When the war ended, the British had won control of all former French possessions in Canada and the Midwest.

The Revolutionary War Period

However, conflict did not end with the defeat of the French in the Seven Years’ War. In 1767, the Presbyterian minister Samuel Kirkland came to the Oneida. Since Catholicism had made little or no impact on the Oneida, he attempted to convert the Oneida from their traditional religion. His work was most successful with younger men, who saw Kirkland’s rejection of traditional Iroquois life as a means to alter the overall structure of the tribe and their own position in it. In the years before the Revolutionary War, the Oneida were torn between supporting the Americans or the British, the traditional Oneida and the rest of the Iroquois siding with the British and Kirkland’s converts supporting American interests.

During the Revolutionary War, the Oneida and Tuscarora fought alongside the Americans, while the Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, and Onondaga fought alongside the British. After the war, the Iroquois and the United States signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix which established peace between the United Nations and the Six Nations of the League of the Iroquois (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). Because of their assistance to the U.S. during the war, the Oneida and Tuscarora were consequently promised that they would retain possession of their lands. Unfortunately, this did not deter the state of New York from illegally purchasing their lands after the war. Despite being on the “winning” side, the Oneida were badly handicapped by the Revolutionary War; their villages had been burned and they were scattered throughout New York, having taken refuge with other Iroquois tribes. When they regrouped, their earlier dissensions resurfaced, and their disunity led to the foundation of five separate villages which could seldom agree when they met in the tribal council. Despite this, they were joined by the Stockbridge, who founded their town, New Stockbridge, on Oneida lands in 1785. In 1788, they were also joined by members of tribes from New England who founded Brothertown.

Ultimately, their disunity was costly because they failed to support one another and resist land sales. During the early 1800s, the state of New York and White land speculators forced the Oneida to sell large portions of their lands. From the American Revolution onward, the tribe's homeland in New York shrunk from about six million acres to 4,500 acres by 1839.

Leaving New York

In 1816, Eleazar Williams, an Episcopalian Mohawk preacher who spoke fluent Oneida, arrived among the Oneida. At the time, two groups of Oneida existed, the Christian Party and Pagan Party. Williams reinvigorated members of the Oneida Christian Party, who had converted to Christianity during the 1700s. Williams also converted members of the Oneida Pagan Party, which clung to Iroquois traditional religion. The Pagan Party became known as the Second Christian Party. Despite their common Christian faith, differences still remained between the two groups and they did not unite as a whole.

Williams and Jedidiah Morse, a White missionary, believed the Oneida and the other Iroquois nations would continue to suffer White encroachment in New York. They launched a plan approved by the federal government to relocate all New York Indians to the Green Bay, Wisconsin area. Many Stockbridge and Brothertown favored removal westward as well. A delegation led by Eleazar Williams arrived in Green Bay in 1821 and negotiated with the Menominee and Ho-Chunk for about 860,000 acres. The next year, another delegation negotiated a second treaty, for an additional 6.72 million acres on the western shore of Lake Michigan. These treaties were opposed by the Ho-Chunk and the Menominee, but ultimately the Oneida were granted 65,400 acres in Wisconsin in 1838. Despite the controversy over the 1821 and 1822 treaties continued, some of the Oneida began to move to Wisconsin. Many of the first arrivals were members of the Episcopalian First Christian Party, later joined by members of the newly formed Methodist Orchard Party. By 1838, 654 Oneida lived on the new reservation. A small group of Oneida remained on the reservation in New York, while others moved to Ontario, Canada after purchasing land there in 1839.

Early Life in Wisconsin

Oneida settlers in Wisconsin were divided into two groups, Methodists and Anglicans, and they settled in a number of smaller communities on their new lands. Within each of these areas, neighbors and kin provide mutual assistance in clearing land, planting, and harvesting crops as well as more traditional reciprocal relationships, such as building homes and outbuildings. Social gatherings were also focused on the individual neighborhoods. Whereas Oneida society had been strongly clan-oriented, life in Wisconsin was more focused on the nuclear family of a married couple and their children, with other kin bonds extending out through the neighborhood. Instead of reckoning family strictly along matrilineal lines, the Wisconsin Oneida became more bilateral, and counted relatives on both the mother’s and father’s side of the family. Despite changes in the importance of clan relationships, people still maintained clan exogamy, that is one could not marry a member of the same clan. With their strong Christian background, the Oneida discouraged infidelity and divorce.

Whereas chiefs had formerly been elected largely by clan mothers, the pattern in Wisconsin relied more in the importance of particular men in their neighborhoods and the size and reputation of their extended families. A tribal council of 12 men selected by the lineages and one head chief became the norm. The council allotted lands, enforced civil peace, and represented the tribe in dealings with the federal government.

The federal government opened Wisconsin for settlement by incoming Euro-Americans in 1834, and soon pioneers flooded the region. In 1845, the Wisconsin territorial governor, Henry Dodge, asked the Oneida to trade their Wisconsin lands for land west of the Mississippi. Some Oneida were willing to move farther west, but Jacob Cornelius, the Orchard Party leader, refused to negotiate any new removal. By building and investing in their farms, they were well settled in Wisconsin and had much to lose in being forced to leave. Both the Episcopalian and Methodist Oneida had their own churches and schools. Contrary to the federal government’s wishes, the Oneida stayed in Wisconsin.

During the 1850s, stands of white pine on the reservation attracted the attention of lumber companies. Reservation land was owned communally, although individuals staked out their own parcels for farming. Many Whites and even some tribal members felt it would be best for the Oneida to own their land individually, so they could sell the pine on their lands and sell the lumber companies any lands not allotted to Oneida members. Chiefs such as Jacob Cornelius and Daniel Bread of the First Christian Party favored allotment. Cornelius Hill and others feared the Oneida would lose their reservation lands to non-Indians. By the 1870s, divisions within the Oneida tribe brought about the rejection of the older council systems and the creation of an elective system of government. However, many refused to give up the older systems and simply refused to abide by the elected government.

Allotment and Resulting Changes

The Oneida did not relinquish any lands until 1887, when Congress passed the Dawes Act. This mandated that all Indian reservation lands be allotted to individual Indians who, after a period of 25 years, could sell or lease their land as they wished. The federal government allotted Oneida lands in the 1890s, but when the 25-year trust period expired, much of the land was bought by non-Indians. By 1920, only a few hundred acres remained in the possession of Oneida tribal members. The remainder of the 65,400 acres was owned by Whites. Loss of land resulting from allotment drove many Oneidas off the reservation in search of work and many families moved to Green Bay and Milwaukee but maintained ties with the reservation. In many case, men left their families on the reservations and sought work elsewhere periodically. However, because of the tight-knit reservation community, Oneida life changed little during this period and the people remained strongly focused on their relatives and Oneida society. 

Later Life in Wisconsin

In 1934, the federal government, under the leadership commissioner of Indian affairs John Collier, reversed the allotment policy under the Indian Reorganization Act. In 1936, the Oneida wrote a new constitution, reorganized their tribal government and the following year bought back 1,270 acres of land in northern Wisconsin. The majority of this land is residential rather than agricultural, and many Oneida work in local businesses, in tribal government, or in tribally run businesses.