Forgotten No More: Oneidas Donate to Start a Revolutionary Museum

WASHINGTON – The leadership and citizens of the Oneida Indian Nation (OIN) of New York think it is important to pay homage to its role in the Revolutionary War in order to help Americans realize the strong historical contributions of the Indian nation—and to grow a bright future of strengthened relations with the United States.

To make that impact, tribal leaders on July 11 announced a major gift of $10 million dollars to the non-profit American Revolution Center in order to help build a Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The announcement came during a sunny ceremony on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building with dignitaries from OIN, officials affiliated with the Center, and U.S. legislators in attendance. The donation helps the Center come much closer to matching a $40 million Lenfest Foundation challenge announced in June.

“I’m pleased to report that we have still survived since the American Revolutionary War, as the allies of this country,” said Ray Halbritter, Nation Representative and CEO of the tribe, in a speech to the assembled audience. “None of this would have been possible if not for the fact that more than 200 years ago, the Oneida people took up arms in support of the colonial neighbors at the Battle of Oriskany.” He said the bloody battle formed the basis of an alliance that exists to this day between the Oneida and American people.

“There is an American Indian proverb that says, ‘Tell me the facts, and I’ll learn; tell me the truth, and I’ll believe; tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever. The American Revolutionary War Center will allow us to share our story with the world,” said Halbritter, who was later presented with an architectural drawing of the planned museum and a replica of a silver cup George Washington was said to have carried during the war. “The pledge we are making today will allow people to learn many stories that heretofore have been untold and have been unknown.”

Halbritter mentioned Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, who provided corn to George Washington’s sick and starving army, and taught the colonial soldiers how to prepare the food for sustenance. She refused to be paid for her service, he said, but Martha Washington later brought her to Philadelphia to buy her a bonnet and shawl, which survive to this day.

Halbritter later said in an interview that Indians have often been strong allies of the United States, such as through service in the military—despite experiencing countless hardships.

“It was a real difficult existence for us for quite some time,” Halbritter said. “We have lived in poverty, but have been able to pull ourselves out of the poverty to where we can now give back. It’s an exciting and momentous time not just for the Oneida Nation, but for the people of America.”

“This is a part of history that not many people know the truth about, so now they are going to get it in context,” said Clint Hill, Turtle Clan Council Member, in attendance at the event. “We are proud to help that happen.”

“We are the forgotten allies,” added Chuck Fougnier, Wolf Clan Council Member. “We should be forgotten no more.”

Leaders of the museum seemed to fully understand the historical efforts of the tribe, with Michael C. Quinn, president and CEO of the Center, saying that the Oneidas and the Iroquois Confederacy set an example for the formation of the original American colonies. It’s a history they say is little known to the general population, which is why the museum will take special care to highlight the reality in the final exhibition.

“At the time of the American Revolution, when the Oneida Nation first allied itself with the American cause, the idea of America was something held only in the hearts and minds of many people across this land, and now, 236 years later, we see the embodiment and the result of that dream,” Quinn said in a speech. “It’s a great vision.”

Quinn added that the Oneidas were the first allies of the American cause, breaking with other members of the Iroquois Confederacy. “Their help was instrumental in important battles,” he said, adding that such contributions would be highlighted at the final museum.

“In this museum, we will tell the story of the Oneida Nation,” said Gerry Lenfest, chairman of the Center’s Board of Directors. “There are so many poignant tales.” He recalled the story of a young Oneida boy who was educated after the friendship grew between the Oneidas and some colonists.

Others in attendance, like U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna, R-NY, were in the beginning stages of learning, just as the tribal leaders hope the project helps many Americans ultimately do. He said he hasn’t had much contact in the past with OIN, but he plans to do much more outreach going forward, especially since the tribe is scheduled to be in his district after the next election cycle.

“We’re all Americans; we’re all connected; and it’s important not to forget our history and the part that the Oneidas can take credit for helping us achieve,” Hanna said in an interview. “In spite of our differences, we have a great deal in common.”

“It’s so appropriate that we are here today, as we just celebrated Independence Day as a nation, and we need to understand and appreciate who helped us gain that independence,” said U.S. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-NY. “We just met with the Oneida Nation a couple of weeks ago. They are such an asset to our economy in upstate New York, and there are so many things we can learn from them.”

OIN is composed of approximately 1,000 citizens, according to tribal statistics. It is the owner of Indian Country Today Media Network.