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'Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution'

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, ''History is written by the victors.'' Churchill, ever prescient, got this one right. Almost.

Sometimes, the victors don't get the chance to immediately record their history for posterity. In the case of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, that chance comes more than 200 years after the fact. In their recently released book ''Forgotten Allies,'' historians Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin tell the story of the Oneida alliance with the American colonists in their war for independence against the British.

When the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1783, the colonies achieved sovereign independence from the Crown and became the United States; ever since, revolutionary history has been written from the American perspective. The French contribution to the revolutionary effort has been widely, and rightfully, recognized in the annals of history. Not so with that of the Oneida Nation.

Like most Indian history, culture and tradition, the Oneida story of alliance with the United States has been passed down orally from generation to generation. But oral tradition has not always made it onto the printed page.

The casual reader of history of the American Revolution will find that most history textbooks make little or no mention of American Indian involvement in any aspect of the war. But due to their location, in what is now central New York, the Haudenosaunee were caught in the thick of things between warring colonials and Brits.

''Forgotten Allies'' digs deeper into the Oneida story than most other works. The thoughts and actions of Oneida leaders and warriors come to life as Glatthaar and Martin wrote almost like storytellers rather than historians. Daily life, the influence of missionaries, the intrusion of settlers, and internal politics between the nations and within the Oneida nation - even down to the village level - are also described and discussed.

For the Oneida, the decision to side with the colonists basically boiled down to the proximity of colonial settlement to the Oneida homeland, which forced the two societies into close contact. While many Oneidas and other Haudenosaunee favored neutrality, the Indians' geographical position, between the colonials in New York and New England and the British in Canada, negated that approach.

''The patriots spoke of freedom and the liberties of individuals in ways the Oneidas easily grasped,'' the authors wrote. ''Power-hungry Crown officials, the colonists claimed, were depriving them of their fundamental rights and turning them into political slaves. This perception resonated with the Oneidas, who referred to themselves as 'a free people' with 'absolute Notions of Liberty.' The concept of fundamental rights reflected in the Oneidas' long-held imperative to control their own destiny, both as individuals and as a nation.''

Oneida warriors fought alongside American militiamen at the battles of Oriskany and Saratoga, both critical in thwarting the northern and western thrusts of the three-pronged British strategy to divide New York and isolate New England from the other colonies.

Oneidas traveled to Valley Forge, Penn., during that miserable winter of 1777 - '78. They delivered blankets and food to the Continental Army; and Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, taught them to make hulled corn soup. Some participated in the engagement at Barren Hill on May 19, 1778.

''Forgotten Allies'' is indeed an appropriate title. After the American Revolution was over and before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the Oneidas were left out to dry. Albany hungrily eyed ''Iroquoia'' - known today as central New York and the Finger Lakes - and moved swiftly to secure the title, no matter how dubious, to as much Haudenosaunee land as possible. The federal government looked the other way as New York gobbled up Haudenosaunee land.

After generations of poverty and hardship, the Oneida Nation has leveraged gaming and other businesses to create for itself a renaissance of sorts. But efforts to reclaim lost lands have thus far been stymied, and state politicians greedily eye Oneida gaming and commercial establishments as ripe for taxation.

Thus ''Forgotten Allies'' has come along at the right time - to document the contributions of the Oneida people to the independence of an America that doesn't seem to appreciate or even remember them.