Oneida Elders provide a view of the past and a vision for the future. Their memories connect the Oneidas of today with past generations. Following are shared memories from some of our Oneida Elders, past and present.

Language

The Oneida Language appeared to be dying out by the mid-twentieth century. Schools, even reservation schools, forced children to speak English and often punished them for speaking Oneida. Many parents encouraged their children to speak only English, believing it would help them succeed economically. A few native speakers fought to keep Oneida alive while others struggled to learn the language as adults.

My mother spoke only Oneida until she was nine years old because that’s all she heard at home. That’s how fast you can lose a language, in just one generation. And she didn’t speak it (to her children)… I didn’t learn to speak it fluently, but I learned a lot of phrases and words.
Gloria Halbritter (Wolf Clan) 1925 -2016

I can see now that they were protecting us because they wanted us to get into that big melting pot. Because that’s the way it was, but now it’s different… I’m learning my culture, becoming me, and around other Native Americans.
Birdy Burdick (Turtle Clan)

I got to thinking about the history of the area, and I thought, well, you know, it’s a shame that our language is going to go by the wayside. There were only two people I knew of that could speak it fluently… and I knew that Aunt Elsie was one of those people. So, I talked to her and finally we started meeting a couple of times a week. I had an old, beat-up tape recorder… she would give me the words and I would repeat them until she felt I had them just right…
Ken Phillips (Turtle Clan) 1934 – 2009

I would like to see our people learn their language again and not forget it. Because, how long are we going to be going on? They don’t know, we’ve got a long way to go yet. And, hey, let’s learn our language and learn to talk to one another in that language. Because, to me, it sounds so good when you can get a group to talk together.
Iva Rogers (Turtle Clan Mother) 1920 – 2002

Corn

Corn, beans, and squash nourished Oneidas for centuries and helped shape traditional ways of life. Dried corn, cooked in a variety of ways, fed the Oneida throughout the winter. Today, corn has another symbolic significance. Corn soup and fry bread remind modern Oneidas of the food that sustained past generations.

When the corn is hard, like it is now, you can pan-fry it and grind it. And you don’t have to, you can make a mush out of it (roasted corn) and that tastes roasted. You can pound the corn and then soak it and then pan-fry it. You get all these different flavors with the different ways you prepare it.
Marilyn John (Bear Clan) 1945 – 2007

Aunt Irene, have you got flour? Will you make us some hot scones? And she said, “yes.” So she went in and she started the fire going and she made us some hot scones. And was it ever good, we filled up on that. And we would go, “Aunt Irene, are you sick of making these hot scones?” And she’d say, “No, and long as you say you are hungry, I’ll make you hot scones.”
Barbara Wood (Turtle Clan)

Annuity Cloth

Every year the federal government issues a length of cloth to the Oneida Nation. This annuity cloth embodies the importance and the continuing obligations of the Treaty of Canandaigua. The treaty, signed between the Iroquois Nations and the United States government in 1794, guaranteed Oneida lands and recognized their sovereignty.

I had to wear these two dresses: one was pink and one was blue. And they had all these little flowers all over them… but I didn’t have a choice like the other girls did… I never said anything to anybody but, oh, it made me mad! (After she found out, as an adult, that the fabric was annuity cloth)… it hit me, those were – that was the cloth that they made those dresses out of. For me. And then (instead of being mad) I was honored.
Marilyn John (Bear Clan) 1945 – 2007

One thing I’ll never forget my mother telling me, and that was as a child, I asked her why we got the cloth and she explained the treaty to me. And she said that the cloth got smaller every year because the price of cloth went up and the amount that was given at the time of the treaty stays the same. So the cloth keeps getting smaller each year. She said, “No matter if this cloth gets the size of a postage stamp, you go and get that cloth. Because it proves that this treaty is still in effect.” And I never forgot that.
Gloria Halbritter (Wolf Clan) 1925 – 2016

Land Claims

The Oneidas have been the most persistent of the Haudenosaunee in their pursuit of land claims. From the very beginning of New York’s forced land cessions, Oneidas protested to New York and to the federal government. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s they continued to seek a fair hearing in non-Oneida courts.

(When I was a small child) I asked my mother where the Oneida Indian reservation was. She said, “It’s over by Oneida.” So I got a map of new York State and I saw the Onondaga Reservation. I saw the one up there by Ogdensburg, Akwesasne, up there. And I saw the Carrataugus and Tonowands, but I didn’t ever see one for the Oneida Indian Reservation.
Carl Fogelberg (Turtle Clan)

We’ve had no say in any of the important issues. In fact, we didn’t know anything sometimes until after the fact. So this has been educational and, I think, rewarding because we realize now that after being oppressed so many times that we feel we’re no longer going to take their treatment. We will not tolerate it any more.
Ruth Burr (Turtle Clan Mother) 1916 – 2002

A lot of knowledge that they had, a lot of it was oral, handed down from generation to generation. I imagine the same way that I heard it. And, when it involves your land, it has something that really gets you inside, so you don’t forget those things.
Gloria Halbritter (Wolf Clan) 1925 – 2016

What is so wrong about wanting your land back that was taken illegally by even their own laws? They, the United States, put in the Non-Intercourse Act. We didn’t pass that, the Congress of the United States passed that which became the law of the land. The Supreme Court, that’s not our court, but the Supreme Court said that the Non-Intercourse Act was violated, therefore the land deals that the state of New York made with the Oneida people to take those lands were invalid. We didn’t do it. We didn’t start the Land Claims Commission back in the 1940s. When all of this land stuff started, all we were trying to do was survive as Oneida people.
Keller George (Wolf Clan)

Crafts

Oneidas have made baskets, no-face dolls, pots, and beadwork for centuries, first for themselves and later also for sale to non-Natives. Artisans making crafts for sale would modify traditional patterns to make them less utilitarian and more stylish.

When I was a small child my mother taught me how to make the corn husk dolls and she also taught me how to do the different types of beadwork. And she had an Indian dress herself and I always wanted an Indian dress. I made a dress for myself when I was 16.
Gloria Halbritter (Wolf Clan) 1925 – 2016

My mother taught us all how to do beadwork and my dad made us each our own loom, and taught us how to make our designs and to transfer our designs and our images of beadwork into the loom.
Brenda Bush (Turtle Clan)

Herbal Medicine

When Europeans first encountered American Indians, European medicine was primitive at best. The Indian herbal cures worked better, and certainly caused less harm, than the treatments of European doctors.

Following tradition, when native herbalists pick herbs they give thanks to the Creator and to the plant itself. They are always careful to leave some of the plan behind for others and so the plant can continue to grow.

I remember one time when I was young I had a wart on my hand and my mother took me down and treated that with herbs and it went away. It never came back. She used to have witch hazel which I think some would call spice bush that we used to drink all winter. She’d have a big kettle on the back of the stove and she’d say, “When you get thirsty, don’t drink just the water. Drink this and it will keep you from catching colds.”
Gloria Halbritter (Wolf Clan) 1925 – 2016

(Ginseng) was supposed to pick you up and give you energy and that type of thing. The ginseng is still popular today. You can buy it in capsule form… We used to go and dig that up… (Pepper root) was supposed to be good for your stomach.
Keller George (Wolf Clan)