Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number XIII. May 15, 1886, pages 107-108

Many were the councils held by the Oneidas in this time of trial, during the years 1867 and '68. At that date the tribe was governed by a council composed of a chief and sub-chief, from the seven different bands or "totems" of the tribe. From time immemorial the Iroquois tribes have been divided into eight different bands or "totems" originating in family relationship. The "totems" were the badges assumed by each; the wolf, the turtle, the bear, the deer, the beaver, the falcon, the crane, and the plover. Of these only seven were preserved among the Oneidas. The seven chiefs and sub-chiefs of these "totems" or bands were elected for life by the women! But the matrons among the Konoshioni had a certain political influence recognized by the men; they met in council on occasions of importance, and, for instance, were the especial peace-makers, in time of war. Some ten years since there was an important change in the political condition of the tribe. From that date annual elections have been held by the men in October, when a chief sachem and six councillors are elected by the whole tribe without regard to the "totems," to serve for one year. But at the date of the troubles of which we are now writing the old form of election still existed. The chiefs and sub-chiefs met almost daily in council, and the agent from Green Bay often came over, full of threats and intimidation. Occasionally it is said bribery was resorted to. The missionary kept aloof from these councils, but his opinions were well known, and his advice always faithfully given to the people when asked. The very great majority of the tribe were strongly opposed to any removal. A direct appeal to the government at Washington was resolved upon. The newspapers at Green Bay and Chicago were active in the conflict. The chiefs became very indignant, and one of them, Cornelius Hill, a man who would do credit to any community, wrote an answer to the calumnies of the agent. His letter is here reprinted. This champion of his people was educated at Nashotah.

Editors of the Green Bay Advocate:

I am surprised and grieved to read, as I do in the Gazette of June 5, such language as the following concerning the Oneidas. I quote from an article in the Gazette, written by a correspondent of the Chicago Republican, with whose opinions I have nothing to do, and about which I care nothing, but this correspondent brings in the name of the Hon. M.L. Martin, and refers to him as an old resident of Green Bay and as the U.S. Indian Agent, as being the source from which he received his information. Mr. M.L. Martin informs this correspondent that--

"All efforts to civilize the Oneidas have failed; that the Oneidas are thriftless, reckless and beastly people; that they are, every five of them, the useless consumers of the subsistence that would sustain a thousand white men; that the Oneidas are a nuisance and an obstacle to the progress of Green Bay, and that the government of the United States ought to accede to the wishes of the people of Green Bay and remove the Oneidas to some place where they may be no longer such a hindrance to the welfare of Green Bay."

Now, I am a member of the Oneida tribe, and do not feel disposed to permit such slanders of my people to pass uncontradicted. Mr. Martin is an honorable gentleman, an old resident of Green Bay, and the U.S. Agent, having charge of my tribe; he ought therefore on each of these accounts, to be the last person to depreciate the Oneidas in the estimation of the citizens of the United States but should give them the full benefit of all the praise for all the real progress they have made in civilization, which a regard to truth with justify.

Mr. Martin is brought forward endowed with all the above qualifications for a truthful and impartial witness, and really his testimony ought to be received as true, and no more ought to be said on the subject, but truth and honor demand that this testimony be proved to be basely false and slanderous.

I am but a young man, yet since I can remember, the Oneidas have advanced a great deal in civilization. Instead of "all efforts made by good men to lead my people on in civilization having failed," these efforts are now actively carried on in the tribe and no thoughts of failure disturb those who support and carry them on; in fact greater success is attending those efforts to-day than ever before. It was but a short time ago that my people were sunk in the depths of barbarism; this fact is not their fault. All nations were once in barbarism and many far lower in the scale of human existence. Not many years ago my people all lived in bark or mat wigwams; now they all have houses of some sort, many of them have good and comfortable dwellings, and a ride through our settlements and through any other town of white farmers will convince anyone not blinded by prejudice and avarice that our houses are ten times better and more comfortable than the wigwams of a few years ago.

My people used to eat out of a common wooden dish placed on the earth floor of the wigwam, each one of the family or company squatting around it, armed with a wooden ladle, and dressed in nature's own garb; now we all have tables to eat from, chairs to sit on, plates, cups, knives, forks, spoons, clean food cooked for the most part on good cooking stoves, instead of in the smoke and ashes of a wigwam; we are clothed in civilized garments, and most of us implore the blessing of our Heavenly Father upon our food and ourselves before partaking of what we all realize to be the good gifts of our God.

We used to sleep on the ground or on skin or a mat spread on the floors of our huts; now we all have civilized beds to sleep on and take our rest between civilized sheets as other men do.

Once we lived on the game and fish we caught and killed; now we have large farms, raise wheat, corn, rye, oats, peas, potatoes, beans and other crops suitable for cultivation in this climate. We live, for the most part, on what we raise on our farms, and can furnish forth as good a meal of victuals and one as well cooked as can be furnished in any white farmer's house.

Our women can make good bread from wheat flour, and they can cook all kinds of food in a civilized way; can set a clean table, make butter, and their own and their children's clothes, after a civilized manner. We have good barns, cows, horses, oxen, wagons, plows, harrows, axes, hoes, pitchforks, a reaping machine, and two eight horse power threshing machines.

We have churches; the Lord's day is regularly observed as a day of rest and Divine worship, and our people contribute liberally towards the support of their churches, in labor, in money, and in kind. We have schools where our children learn to read and write and cipher. There are now over 200 of your children being instructed in our schools.

The family tie or relation is sacredly regarded. We no longer have two or more wives, as in our wild state, but every man has his own wife and every woman her own husband, and we bring up our children at home in the family in a civilized way. Many white people and all uncivilized Indians have more than one wife, and this custom is well known to be a sign and test of barbarism, which cannot be found amongst the Oneidas.

There is not a jail, a grog-shop, or a house of ill-fame amongst my people; all of them exist where Mr. Martin lives at Green Bay, whose civilized progress must not be arrested by the presence of the Oneidas in its vicinity.

Mr. Martin ought to view his own people, they have for more than a thousand years been under the influence of civilization, yet how many reckless, thriftless white people there are. Look at this Green Bay whose progress must not be impeded by the presence of Indians; how many drunkards, gamblers, adulterers, shameless women, liars, thieves, cheats, idlers, consumers, slanderers there are there.

They have all kinds of religion in Green Bay, yet the greater part of the people appear to be a godless set. The whites have had great opportunities to advance in civilization, yet thousand of them have failed to become civilized; the Indians have had but a short time to become so, yet because they do not all at once become refined and civilized in a day, Mr. Martin says they are a nuisance and ought to be removed!

The efforts to civilize the Oneidas have failed no more than the efforts to civilize the whites. The whites are not willing to give us time to become civilized, but must remove us to some barbarous country as soon as civilization approaches us. The whites claim to be civilized; from them we must learn the arts and customs of civilized life, but our people learn to become drunkards of white people; if a civilized white man gets drunk, why should not a red Indian? The whites teach our people all their vices and learn them to despise virtue. The whites should try to elevate instead of trying to degrade and destroy us. Mr. Martin ought to assist us, he is the authorized agent of the United States to us, and ought, therefore, to see that our people do not obtain the means of intoxication of the whites, which is the greatest hindrance to our advancement in civilization, but he does not lift a finger towards warding off this curse from us. Instead of devising plans for our advancement in civilization, he bends all his energies to the work of depriving us of our homes.

Instead of helping us to improve our condition, he is not willing that we should peaceably enjoy our own possessions, yet he is our white friend, and represents to us the kindly interest and benevolence which the white race as personified in the U.S. Government feels in our welfare.

Such sentiments and actions, Mr. Martin no doubt considers the very natural outgrowth of that civilization he speaks of, and to which he has been subjected all his life. If such be really the case the less my people have of it the better.

But I am well aware that such feelings cannot find place in the mind of a truly civilized man, be he white, black, or red, but are the offspring of that rapacious and utterly selfish spirit which has stripped us of our former homes, and which unconsciously to themselves influences the minds and good judgments of many, otherwise, decent men.

The civilization which I and the greater part of my people aim at is one of honor and truth; one that will raise us to a higher state of existence here on earth and fit us for a blessed one in the next world.

We intend to strive after this civilization, and strive after right here where we are now, being sure that we shall find it no sooner in the wilds beyond the Mississippi.

Our progress may be slow, and with the adverse circumstances surrounding us, it cannot well be otherwise, but progress is our motto, and those who labor to deprive us of this small spot of God's footstool will labor in vain. Mr. Martin and his white friends had better try to improve rather than to remove us, and thus benefit us and themselves at the same time.

A Chief of the first Christian party of Oneidas.
Oneida Reserve, June 13, 1868.

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