A Historical Journey
by Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk
This article was originally published by Oneidas for Democracy.
For the past few years the Onyata, aka “People of the Standing Stone” or Oneidas of Madison County have played an increasingly large role in the economic affairs of central New York. While much has been reported about the Oneidas in the newspapers, the following information should give readers a better understanding of the Oneidas. We are told the Oneidas were part of a larger Iroquois family which originated in the American southwest thousands of years ago. The migration to the northeast took many hundreds of years to complete but ended when the Iroquois entered present day New York at the confluence of the Oswego River and Lake Ontario.
From there the Iroquois separated into six distinct groups settling throughout the region. The Mohawks created a homeland along the Mohawk Valley followed, east to west, by the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. The sixth group journeyed far to the south, finally ending up in the North Carolina area. These were the Tuscaroras, a native nation which retraced its steps to their ancient homelands in the year 1712 after losing a bitter war with English colonists. Oneidas refer to themselves as the “Standing Stone” because they had, in each of their villages, a large rock they would gather around to hold their ceremonial activities. The Mohawks are referred to as “People of the Flint”, the Onondagas are “People of the Hills”, the Cayugas are “People of the Swamp”, the Senecas call themselves “People of the Great Hill” and the Tuscaroras are the “Shirt Wearing People”.
Originally, the Oneidas lived in an area which stretched from the St. Lawrence River to northern Pennsylvania and from the Chittenango Creek-Tioughnioga River on the west to the Unadilla River-West Canada Creek on the east. Total area for the aboriginal homeland of the Oneida Nation is estimated to be about 3,600,000 acres. Oneida life in pre-European times was centered around their villages. They were primarily agricultural with crops such as corn, beans and squash forming the greater part of their diet. They enjoyed a rich spiritual life with a major ceremonial gathering during each lunar month.
Clans were essential to the orderly flow of Oneida culture. All social, political and religious functions were dependent upon the clans, as was the distribution of material goods. There were three clans: Bear, Wolf and Turtle. Each clan appointed three female leaders (clanmothers) and three male leaders (rotiiane or “chiefs”) to the national government. Also, each clan selected a man and a woman to serve as advisors on spiritual matters. These were/are the faithkeepers.
All leaders were nominated by the clanmothers and were subject to ratification by their respective clan. They served for life unless impeached by their clans for such violations as insanity, greed, assault, rape, treason and incompetence, among others. The clan might also indicate they have no confidence in a leader or he/she might by their own actions commit crimes which violate their oath of office thereby removing themselves from office.
With regards to a rotiiane his clanmother would give him three cautions to rectify his behavior. At the third such ‘warning’ she was accompanied by a young man who would, upon her instructions, remove the rotiiane’s deer antler headress, which was his symbol of office.
Once removed, such a person was considered as “walking dead”, without voice in the people’s affairs or ever to be entrusted with any type of influence or power. They might also be banished from Iroquois territory either permanently or for a set period of time.
In order to function as a qualified leader the candidate had to have a secure and stable home life, a solid marriage, be willing to accept the criticisms of the people (his skin was to be “seven spans thick”), live simply and without thought of personal enrichment, have considerable knowledge as to the traditional spiritual values of the community and be an active participant in all of the ancient rituals. Once selected as a candidate by the clan the prospective leader had to be endorsed by the Oneida national government (but not each individual member) then by the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy at a ceremonial called “Condolence” which the Council might elect not to do if they disapproved of the candidacy thereby sending the entire process back to the respective nation for a repeat of the selection process.
For many generations the Oneidas prospered in their ancestral lands but with the arrival of the colonists in the northeast they endured considerable cultural stress. Devastating epidemics of European borne smallpox and influenza killed hundreds of thousands of Native people in the east and the Iroquois suffered periodic plagues resulting in displacement, disorganization and chaos. In the 1600’s the Iroquois endured a century of warfare as the native nations in the northeast fought to reestablish political and economic power. The Confederacy engaged in brutal struggles with the Eries, Susqeuhannas, Algonquins, Crees, Chippewas, Illinois, Hurons, Mahicans, Abenkais and others until a general peace was secured in 1701. Also enveloped in this war were Dutch, English and French settlers who, in some instances, adopted a policy of playing one native nation against the other as the Europeans sought to expand their seacoast land base. The Oneidas were quick to adopt the new technologies brought to the region from across the sea. Firearms, tools and ornaments found a ready market in Oneida as the natives brought their furs for exchange to markets in Montreal and Albany. The Iroquois derived great political power by controlling the fur trade along with material prosperity.
But the Oneidas were feeling the pressure of expanding European settlement; they watched with growing alarm as the Mohawks were driven north to the St. Lawrence River to escape the colonists. Likewise, small groups of Oneidas also went north but to seek easier access to the Catholic church since many of them had converted to Christianity. Oneidas settled across the river from Montreal in 1660 and in the 1730’s established a community called Oswegatchie near present day Ogdensburg, NY. During the American Revolution the Oneidas desired neutrality but were drawn into the conflict when their homelands were invaded by both American and British forces. In addition, the Rev. Samuel Kirkland was an influential advocate for the rebels and used his authority to divide the Oneidas, many of whom actively fought for the US. After the war, the Oneidas believed they would, because of their loyalty, have their lands secured but New York State adopted a policy of alienating Iroquois land by intimidation, threats, bribery and outright fraud.
Through a series of highly controversial, and illegal, transactions New York assumed control over most of Oneida territory resulting in the displacement of the Oneida people. When US President Thomas Jefferson sought to remove all Natives west of the Mississippi, the Oneidas felt they had no choice but to secure their survival by finding refuge far from the settlers. Led by a Mohawk preacher named Eleazer Williams, most of the Oneidas left their homelands beginning in 1820 for territory among the Menominee Nation in eastern Wisconsin. This group was primarily Christian while another so-called “pagan” faction elected to form a community on the Thames River near London, Ontario. Another group chose to live on the Onondaga Reservation south of Syracuse while a fourth, the Marble Hill Oneidas, refused to leave and held on to their few acres outside of Sherrill, NY.
Throughout the 19th century the Oneida lands in New York were gradually whittled away by New York in violation of federal law. Although the Oneidas complained vigorously not until 1985 would the merits of their case be upheld by the US Supreme Court. During those dark years the idea of the Oneidas returning home to live on an expanded land area was kept alive by a few individuals.
In the 20th century patriots such as Mary Winder and her sister Delia Waterman filed numerous petitions to the US government to seek justice for their cause. While Mary Winder died in 1952, her sister continued to press the government. In 1972 the Oneidas remaining in New York filed legal action in the US courts before finally prevailing 13 years later.
With the arrival of commercial gambling in Indian country in the late 1970’s the Oneidas sought to create an economic base by opening a small bingo hall which was later expanded. Throughout the 1980’s, however, intense internal struggles for control of the Oneidas resulted in violent clashes, recriminations and arson.
In 1977 the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee acknowledged three individuals, Lyman Johns, Richard Chrisjohn and Arthur Raymond Halbritter, as messengers for the Oneida people residing in Central New York. With the death of Johns and Chrisjohn, Halbritter assumed unilateral powers and created an organization called the “Men’s Council”; a decision made without the approval of the Oneida people and condemned by the Grand Council.
In April, 1993 Halbritter concluded secret negotiations with New York Governor Mario Cuomo resulting in a gaming compact to open a casino on disputed territory. The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee stripped Halbritter of his status as an Oneida spokesperson which then ratified by the US Department of the Interior on August 10 then rescinded a day later after the intervention of US Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) a sponsor of Halbritter and gambling advocate.
Halbritter moved to create a 54 member, completely non-Native police force to consolidate his power on Oneida territory. Using US government funds, Halbritter built a housing project and offered expanded social services to gain support. In August 1993 the Turning Stone Casino opened to quickly become the largest single employer in Oneida County. The Halbritter regime refused to comply with the 1988 Indian Gaming Act by supplying the National Indian Gaming Commission with audits from 1993-1996. Not until the Commission threatened to close the casino did the Halbritter regime acquiesce and submit a report, yet despite efforts by the Oneidas to obtain a financial accounting of the casino operations they have yet, as of May, 1999, to see such a document.
On March 20th, 1995 the Wolf Clan members of the Oneida Nation gathered to meet at their Longhouse to find the locks had been changed. The non-Native police officers were instructed to arrest anyone trying to enter. They moved the meeting to the Wolf Clan Mother’s log cabin (Maisie Shenandoah) where the Wolf Clan members decided to remove Ray Halbritter as their Representative due to the numerous injustices done against the Oneida people.
The Halbritter regime responded by stripping the “dissidents” of their status as Oneidas resulting in a loss of employment, health insurance, educational allowances, quarterly stipends and all other Oneida Nation services.
In 1996 the traditional Oneidas, or the Onyota’a:ka, initiated suit in US federal court to have Halbritter, deemed a US citizen, removed as Oneida representative. The complaint was dismissed at the District level but appealed at the Second Circuit which found sufficient evidence to order a hearing in the US Department of the Interior to determine Halbritter’s status. The Federal Court dismissed this case without prejudice and now it is up to the people to exhaust all remedies. This is impossible due to the structure of the current leadership.
Published with the author’s permission.