The Oneida Indian Nation’s Shako:wi Cultural Center will celebrate its 24th anniversary this June. The handcrafted white pine museum has become a landmark educational center showcasing several items of Oneida culture – from beadwork and cornhusk dolls to hand-made lacrosse sticks and historical artifacts. The center invites not only the American Indian community to learn more about Oneida culture, but also the local community and visitors to the region as well.
Kandice Watson (Wolf Clan) has been working at Shako:wi for 13 years. Her uncle, Richard Chrisjohn (Wolf Clan), had the vision of building a cultural center on the Oneida homelands. Chrisjohn’s Oneida name – Shako:wi – means “he gives,” and that spirit of giving is the foundation of the center’s mission. The building is designed to give visitors and future generations a glimpse into the history and culture of the Oneida people.
“For me, the center is about keeping our culture, traditions and our history alive and available to people to learn about,” Watson says. “I also want to ensure my uncle’s vision remains a priority and we remember that this building was named after him.”
An Educational Tool
The staff at the center, which also includes Lisa Latocha (Wolf Clan) and Jessica Farmer (Onondaga), work to ensure Shako:wi is a welcoming space where people can come and learn. And that includes children, too. Fourth grade classes from school districts all across central New York plan visits to Shako:wi to learn about how the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy came together, why the Tuscaroras joined later and to get a glimpse into the culture which is as alive today as ever.
Teachers use trips to Shako:wi either as a starting point or conclusion for lessons on American Indian culture. On average, more than fifteen classes visit the center annually, typically near the end of the year or during Native American Heritage Month in November. Watson, Latocha and Farmer all agree that students are coming in much more prepared.
“It’s all about the teacher’s lesson plan,” Watson says. “The kids can tell you what’s on the stained glass window upstairs and the meaning behind it…and it’s great being able to reach them when they’re younger.”
The center continues to do a lot of outreach, but would like to reach the more immediate community in and around the city of Oneida. Watson is still told by visitors they had no idea the building even existed. But the center’s reach and interest extends even beyond central New York. Groups from out of state consistently visit Shako:wi and recognize its important role in preserving and sharing American Indian culture.
Watson performs many other outreach functions that can benefit area businesses, colleges and civic organizations too. Oneida Nation history, the use of Native mascots and imagery, American Indian education, the Oneidas involvement in the Revolutionary War, Oneida storytelling, treaties and sovereignty are among the many topics she covers. She has presented at many organizations including the Fort Drum Army Base, the Department of Defense, Colgate University, Cornell University, Hamilton College, Boy and Girl Scout troops, historical societies and many others as well.
Community Continues Cultural Traditions
In addition to its role as a museum, the cultural center also promotes numerous community programs and classes for Oneida Members and Health Services clients. Jessica Farmer leads several how-to classes that include beadwork, cornhusk dolls, regalia, painting and working with quills.
Farmer has been working at the Nation for more than half her life. “My mom used to work here so I kind of grew up in this building,” she says. “The sense of community and family is what makes this place special to me.”
Beading is a craft Farmer admires. She says the technique beaders use and the evolution of the art itself is simply amazing. Other activities that are popular, especially with the kids, are creating cornhusk dolls and storytelling at the Nation’s Cookhouse.
“Kids really get into the storytelling,” Farmer says. “They know the Three Sisters and have interesting interpretations when we paint the legends.”
Latocha has been at the cultural center for nearly three years. “It’s like coming home,” she says. “I lived here in the early 70s, and it’s special to be able to come back and work for the Nation.”
She emphasized the need for the center to be a learning building and for Oneidas to have the ability to tell their story as opposed to the framed story told in school.
“We can have conversations we can’t have at other places,” Latocha explains. “The center is a safe space to have discussions about our culture.”
Among the many exhibits at Shako:wi, Latocha chose the Chief Rockwell exhibit as her favorite. Chief William Rockwell wore his western-style headdress in public because, at the time, that is how non-Natives expected all American Indians to dress. The cultural tradition of the headdress can be explained through Chief Rockwell’s shared experience.
The history of lacrosse, and more specifically the evolution of the lacrosse stick, is the most recent exhibit at the center. “Ká:lahse’ – a Haudenosaunee Tradition” offers visitors a look into how the traditional game of lacrosse was played by the Oneidas and how it affected today’s game. Wooden lacrosse sticks line the wall of the exhibit with information detailing how they are made.
Shako:wi Looks to the Future
Watson says the center is always looking for more historical items to put on display. That gives the center an opportunity to update its collection and put together new exhibits regularly. Items from Shako:wi are also on display at Oneida Nation Health Services so patients in the waiting area can share in some of the Oneida culture.
The center is also set to begin cultivating individual Three Sisters gardens for Oneida Members. This year, the center will make 20’x20’ plots covering about an acre adjacent to the center available for planting the Three Sisters – corn, beans and squash – and other vegetables, herbs and flowers. Nation Member Carl Jacobs (Wolf Clan) assists with the planting project. His crookneck squash, which was grown on the territory, took home first prize at the Six Nations Indian Village at the New York State Fair last year.
As the Shako:wi Cultural Center’s anniversary approaches, the staff continues to manage the several historical and cultural artifacts on display in addition to providing educational and community-oriented programs to promote Oneida culture. Watson looks forward to improving outreach efforts and educating the various communities that visit each year.