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Posing for Posterity

Telling the pivotal story of the Oneida Indian Nation in the Revolutionary War in six immersive, interactive minutes at the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia was a tall order. And so museum personnel turned to New York City-based ATTA, Inc. to create lifelike representations—“lifecasts”—of six major Oneida figures.

But they couldn’t just be mannequins stuck behind glass. ey had to be durable, because visitors would walk among and even touch them.

Each lifecast model was a Haudenosaunee from New York. One of them, Elmer John (Seneca), modeled for Oneida Chief Warrior Han Yerry. Making a cast of his head took about 45 minutes. “First they slicked up your face with Vaseline, so it wouldn’t stick,” John recalled. A er that, plaster was used to make a mold of his face.

“It’s not really that uncomfortable,” said Karen Atta, the founder and owner of her namesake studio. “We use dental alginate, like what the dentist would use if you’re having impressions of your teeth. It’s kind of strange; I think maybe conceptually it’s hard for some people who think they would be claustrophobic.”

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Atta Studios created lifecasts, or realistic 3-D Oneida Chief Skenandoah replicas of human models, of Native Americans for the Museum of the American.

Although members of Native nations modeled for the lifecasts’ faces, other models were used for the bodies so the historical figures’ physical descriptions could be matched as accurately as possible. All told, 12 casts were completed for the six museum gures. In addition to Han Yerry, they are his wife, Tyonajanegen (“Two Kettles Together”); the Oneida chiefs Skenandoah and Ojistarale (“Grasshopper”); the Bear Clan matron Wá:li; and the swift-footed Tegahsweangalolis (“The Sawmill”).

Once the lifecasts were completed, Michael Galban (Washoe/Paiute), curator and content expert at the Ganondagan State Historic Site, dressed them with replicated period clothing and accoutrements. Museum visitors will notice a mixture of more traditional clothing with European garments.

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Oneida Chief Skenandoah

“By the 1770s, they [the Haudenosaunee people] had been in contact with Europeans for over 200 years,” Galban said. “People have a hard time understanding that. So the appearance of people at the time is a result of that long, close, intimate contact with the Europeans. Just like today, we take the best parts of the modern world and we incorporate it into our own lives as indigenous people. at doesn’t diminish our cultural presence and value. It is simply a survival, an adaptation to the reality of our lives.”

Once the lifecasts were dressed, they were coated with an epoxy to protect them. us, those nation members who modeled for the statues will have their alter egos permanently preserved.

“It’s kind of amazing knowing that it will be there for several generations, and people will be able [to see it],” John said. “It’s quite an honor to portray our warriors from that time period considering all they had to go through. They were fighting most of their lives. e Americans could get resupplied with new soldiers, for us, it was one battle after another. We didn’t have more warriors to resupply ourselves with.”