The new Museum of the American Revolution may have taken 16 years to come to fruition, which seems like a long time, but not nearly as long as the Oneida Indian Nation has waited to see the story of their contributions come to light.
“It was the Oneidas who took up arms in support of their colonial neighbors early on at the Battle of Oriskany, considered by many historians to be the bloodiest battle of the Revolution. Although that battle was more or less a draw it cemented the longstanding friendship between the Oneidas and the colonies, and it made the Oneidas the very first allies of the United States,” Oneida Indian Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises Ray Halbritter told the crowd gathered for the official opening of the Museum of the American Revolution April 19.
“It is troubling that this history has often been omitted from America’s founding story. But those omissions only underscore the significance of this new facility and the moral imperative of the museum’s mission,” he went on to say. “This museum makes sure that we are not succumbing to reductionism and not oversimplifying the beginnings of America. Instead, it guarantees that the details are preserved and that all the stories of sacrifice are passed on to future generations.”
The Oneida Indian Nation donated $10 million to make the museum a reality, a sum Halbritter told reporters was “only money,” especially when faced with the issues Natives face today. He explained that because the Native side of history isn’t told, “we are sometimes treated like people don’t know who we are,” and people making important decisions like politicians, lawyers and judges often don’t have all the information to make informed decisions that have far-reaching effects on Native populations. That’s why the Museum of the American Revolution, and telling the Oneida Indian Nation’s part in siding with the rebels, is important.
It’s a compelling and interactive exhibit as well, more human than statues behind glass. Walking in, visitors first see a quote from Keller George, a member of the Oneida Indian Nation and veteran: “I often wish that I could look back through time and hear the words of my ancestors as they sat around the council fires deliberating on whether to join the colonists in battle. I wish I could listen to the wisdom of their arguments to join the United States and become its first allies.”
And that is what visitors see: Six life-size—and incredibly life-like—models created by New York City’s ATTA, Inc. that they can circle around while they see and hear a six-minute version of how the Oneida Indian Nation made the difficult decision to go against their brothers of the Iroquois Confederacy and join the revolution.
“Our Confederacy is divided. Some wish to stay neutral. Some want to support the British. Some want to support the United States. The Oneida Nation has to decide. Where do we stand?” a narrator asks.
“In the river of life, they have their path and we have ours. As an elder, I know that when other nations fight, it is best that we stay neutral,” Grasshopper, who was Odatshehdeh, the first sachem of the Oneida Indian Nation, says as his life-size model is illuminated in the theater. “But their war is now coming to us!”
The life-size models discuss their predicament as visitors watch, but it is just a slice of the complex history. Sheri Beglen, Oneida language preservation coordinator, said there is much more of the story to be told, but having such a well-done exhibit included at the museum gives her a sense of pride. “I did kind of wish there was a council fire in there because this would be something that was discussed in a council setting in one of our council houses,” she explained.
Even if the entire story is yet to be told, this is finally a start to having the Native American side of history told to future generations, and it’s not just Oneida Indian Nation members who recognize the importance of that.
“I think it’s important that young people—actually all people—understand that the people who founded this country were not just a bunch of white men in tights and wigs,” author, journalist, and political commentator Cokie Roberts told reporters before the opening April 19.
“I think the most important part of this museum for me… is it acknowledges fully and totally the contributions of other folks who make this country great—African Americans, Native Americans, women and all others besides those who signed the Declaration of Independence. Without all of them, this would never have happened and they are finally and fully acknowledged in this space,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told the gathered crowd just before the doors opened to the public.
Opening day events began at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park with an interfaith service during which Beglen offered a prayer in the Oneida language to those resting there. After the service, marchers in period costumes led the way to Independence Hall for a tactical demonstration. Speakers during the official dedication included Pulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough; Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, among others. Vice President Joe Biden served as keynote speaker, who reminded everyone that the new museum is a reminder that “we’ve got to fight every damn day to remind ourselves how we got to where we are.”
The Museum of the American Revolution, located on the corner of 3rd and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is now open to the public.