Two hundred years is a long time to be separated from your grandparents, aunties, cousins, extended family, and friends. Two hundred years is a long time to be severed from your ancestral homelands.
That is how long it has been since the Oneida people were extricated and removed from their original territory in Central New York.
This past week, in Clinton, New York, a collective of traditional Oneida women from New York, Wisconsin, and Oneida, Ontario, gathered on a plot of newly reclaimed land, returning to their homelands, to celebrate the receipt of land gifted to them.
Divided by centuries of the U.S. government’s removal and impacts of colonization, a younger generation of Oneida women accepted a gift of nearly 30 acres from a Quaker woman, who had lived on the land for 43 years.
For many Native people the land is part and parcel of Native identity; it is more than a connection, it is part of who they are. So the return of land, and the ability for these Oneida women to have a place to call their own, within their homelands, is monumental.
When the Oneida women first met together on their homelands last summer, Otatdodah Homer, the Wolf Clan Mother in the On^yota'aka homelands said, “We promised. Not to let anybody come between us and discourage us ever again! We are finally together after all this time. It is something that hasn’t happened in almost two hundred years. We discussed this as Clan Mothers, as Faithkeepers, and as the leaders whom were present.”
Michelle Schenandoah, Oneida wolf clan member, is one of the nine directors of the newly formed non-profit organization Akwéku Ohshʌ’he Yukwayóte, which in Oneida means, “We work together.” The non-profit is in receipt of the land for the Oneidas.
At this week’s formal announcement of the news of the gifted land, tears of stunned amazement and joy flowed. “Since the 1800s when our people were forced to leave our lands, it has been a dream of our ancestors, a dream of my grandmother’s, and a dream of our women today that we would once again have a place to come together as one,” said Schenandoah. “Now, we can celebrate and practice our culture on our own lands together, thanks to the gift of a generous soul, Liseli Haines.”
Her mother, Diane Schenandoah, an Oneida Wolf Clan Faithkeeper in New York said: “My grandmother traveled between our three communities gaining support of our (land) claims going before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1951. Witnessing these young women work together all these years later for the greater good of unifying our people’s heart, this is the happiest day. I know our ancestors are looking down on us and smiling."
The day of the official announcement, Samantha Doxtator, from Oneida, Ontario, recited the opening, sending good words to the Creator. They shared the story of the Oneida people and their dispossession, and then they sang and danced and walked the land.
“Our language was spoken and our songs were sang. We let the land know we were there. It was very emotional. It was beautiful,” said Michelle Schenandoah. “I don’t even have words for how I felt.”
Three young Oneida men sang and led the group outside in a stomp dance. The morning brought rain and the earth was wet and squishy. They took off their shoes and let their feet meet the earth, sinking in deep and grabbing the earth with every step.
Liseli Haines, the donor, said she felt that giving the land back to the Oneida women was the right thing to do. “I feel honored to give back the land. The Oneida people have suffered for generations,” she said. She too was moved by the Oneidas reconnection with each other and the land. Speaking haltingly with a crack in her voice, she said, “I know that land, I’ve walked it. I love this land and I could not imagine anyone being told to leave, leave your beautiful homelands. It rips your heart out.”
When the songs were being sung, she thought: How long has it been since the lands have heard these songs and felt the Oneida’s feet touch the ground? “I feel as though I understand what it means to them, but I may never fully understand what this means to the Oneida,” said Haines.
Haines considers the return of the land a “little, tiny thing” to help restore some balance to the people and bring some measure of reparation to the historic incursions, harm, and dispossession. But it is no small thing.
Portia Skenandore-Wheelock, Oneida from Wisconsin, is one of the nine directors of Akwéku Ohshʌ’he Yukwayóte. She and her family have been returning to the New York homelands since she was a child. She summed it up succinctly, “It means everything,” she said.
For most non-Native people, an inherent connection to the earth, to their ancestral lands, is an entirely different concept from that which the indigenous people feel and practice. Haudenosaunee people — people of the Longhouse, commonly referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora — have long established intimate connections with the earth, the natural environment, plant and animal life. Their connections with the natural world and the land is rooted in cultural practices and is a guiding tenet of traditional teachings and lifeways. It is far different from local boosterism or a simple sense of place.
New York ’s history of ‘honest graft’
In 1784 the Oneida lands in central New York State totaled more than five million acres. Within roughly 80 years, Oneida lands were reduced to a mere 32 acres. By 1840 the vast majority of Oneidas were pushed out of state and removed to Wisconsin, 1200 miles away; some settled in southern Ontario. In 1855, just 161 Oneidas were counted in New York, with 1000 in Wisconsin.
The Oneida territory was eyed early on for its prime agricultural aspects, but perhaps more importantly valued by private and state interests for lands ideally situated, found necessary for building roads and waterways, and growing New York state itself. Indians everywhere were considered to be “standing in the way of progress.”
The Oneida’s removal and extinguishment of title to land was part of the 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the unadulterated rationale for destroying, removing or obliterating Native peoples in the name of American growth, westward expansion, and “progress.”
History has revealed that the path to building New York was marked by deceit and trickery. New York state’s Indian policy was focused on extinguishing “the title of the Indians to the soil” and “extinguishing the sovereignty of the Six Nations.”
State officials told the Oneidas that they would be treated fairly and that their land base would be respected. The Oneidas were given guarantees recognizing their territory at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784, but a year later at Fort Herkimer, New York state “acquired” 300,000 acres of Oneida lands for $11,500. More than 90 percent of the Oneidas’ lands would be lost over three critical years in the treaties of 1785 and 1788.
In 1784 and 1785 the New York State Legislature passed laws to facilitate the “settlement of the waste and unappropriated lands” in the state (Native lands) and established procedures to distribute Indian lands even before the state had title. These New York state-Oneida “treaties” resulted in more massive land losses.
In 1788 at Fort Schuyler, the state “acquired” nearly five million acres of Oneida lands in return for $2000 in cash, $3000 in provisions and clothing, $500 to build mills, and the guarantee of a $600 annuity. As part of the agreement, the state convinced the Oneidas to sign an agreement that they were told would protect them and prevent further fraud. Once signed, the state proclaimed that the agreement was in fact a cession of much of their lands.
Gun shy about entering into any discussions with the state over lands, the state found new ways to defraud the Indians of their lands. The state granted power of attorney to a small segment of the tribe and then signed the agreement with a few individual Indians in the name of all Oneidas. This then became the modus operandi for dispossessing the Oneidas, and the rest of the Six Nations, of their lands for the next 50 years.
In 1974 the Supreme Court found New York State to be in clear violation of the federal Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790 because those fraudulent agreements failed to secure the approval of the US Senate and lacked the presence of a federal commissioner. The decision overturned 133 years of federal law, allowing the Oneidas to sue for land claims in federal court for the first time.
In 1976, a full 30 years after the Indian Claims Commission was established to “finally” deal with Native land claims against the federal government, the commission concluded that the 1785 and 1788 treaties had been improperly negotiated by New York State. The commission wrote, “the Oneidas did not voluntarily part with their land…They sold their land only in the face of unwarranted accusations and threats by Governor Clinton…(and) had no choice but to sell the land which New York desired.” They found in the treaty of 1788 that, “the Oneidas did not voluntarily sell their lands at Fort Schuyler...the Oneidas did not even realize they were selling anything.”
In 1985 the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the illegal takings of Oneida lands. However, in 2005 after a series of court cases, reversing its own decision, the court ruled against the Oneidas in Sherrill. v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the court’s final opinion, citing the exploitative Doctrine of Discovery of 1493. She breathed life back into the Catholic Papal Bull that gave Christopher Columbus and European explorers the right to claim lands inhabited by non-Christians, and to Christianize, enslave, rape and kill the indigenous peoples living in their own lands. The Doctrine is valid U.S. law today, and serves as the basis of title to lands in the United States, as noted by the court in the Oneida case and Johnson v. McIntosh case of 1823.
The court also cited “laches”—failure to assert one’s rights in a timely manner; the party invoking laches asserts that the opposing party has “slept on its rights" and as a result of this delay, circumstances have changed, witnesses or evidence may have been lost or no longer available. The court stated that the Oneidas waited too long to bring their case. Yet, “Indian” land claims could not be heard in U.S. courts before 1946, when the Indian Claims Commission was established. The Oneida people never relinquished title to their homelands. Generations of paper trails and legal cases generated by the Oneidas is evidence of their land rights and drive for land reacquisition.
The ruling was devastating not only to the Oneidas, but to all of the Six Nations’ land claims, as the laches citation put an end to all long-standing claims in queue within the Confederacy.
Since the age of 10, Michelle Schenandoah was intent on becoming a lawyer to defend the Oneida land claims. Her great-grandmother, Mary Cornelius Winder and her sister, Delia Cornelius, filed the Oneida’s first land claim case. When the Sherrill decision came down, Schenandoah was crushed. She felt her reason for being in law school was gone. “I couldn’t bring myself to read the decision until years after it was decided,” said Schenandoah.
When she realized that Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg cited the 15th century Doctrine of Discovery in her final opinion, she was furious. “The Doctrine of Discovery has led to the invisibility of indigenous people and has served as the rationale for the genocide of our people…it has been so systematically damaging,” she said. “That it can still be valid law is unbelievable and unacceptable today. It is embedded in the consciousness of society and is an example of the kind of thinking that needs to be challenged and changed.”
A new approach
Despite a long and traumatic history of violations that has kept the Oneidas separated, the women from the three communities began meeting. Michelle Schenandoah has been instrumental in bringing about several important gatherings of Oneida women that have sparked the collective passion and drive to find and regain land upon which they could come together. They found healing under the solar eclipse of 2017 when over 200 Haudenosaunee women gathered at the “Rekindling the Fire of Our Sisterhood,” organized by Schenandoah and others.
The gathering honored the role of Jigonsaseh, a Seneca woman, referred to as the “Mother of Nations,” who played a critical role in carrying a message of peace to the Iroquois, contributing to the formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The gathering was held to unify the women and, Schenandoah explained, “to promote healing after hundreds of years of colonization that has led to external violence against us, and lateral violence among our own people.”
And in the summer of 2018 they gathered in their homelands again for unity, healing, and to dream on the lands together. Heather Dane-Fougnier, grew up in and around Oneida, New York, and is one of the nine directors. Dane-Fougnier is a nutritionist and health coach, specializing in epigenetics (the science of looking at the factors above the genes that dictate health.) Her great-grandmother, Delia Cornelius Waterman — who lived to be 102, and her sister, Mary Cornelius Winder (Michelle Schenandoah's great-grandmother) were sisters. Together, they were the first to bring the Oneida land claims to the federal courts.
Last year, when she went to the gathering of Oneida women, she said it was “one of the most heart-expanding experiences of my life.” She said that there was a lot of healing that weekend and she felt that the land was healing with them.
“I think it's too easy these days to forget how healing community is. And too easy to forget the relationship we have with land. In my work with epigenetics and health, I began to realize that the soil is the connective tissue of Mother Earth and that our communities are the connective tissue of the individuals that make it up,” said Dane-Fougnier. She explained that connective tissue is what physically holds humans up and holds them together. “It's all the structures that give us shape and allows for strength and wellbeing. What I felt when we were together on our land was the kind of healing and strength that comes from repairing connective tissue. It was like everything was working again,” she said. “I'm sure our ancestors were speaking to us that weekend, reminding us to always remember this connection.”
Dane-Fougnier spoke for all the women in her assessment of the profound sense of strength and healing they felt. “As our three Oneida communities of women gathered, we could feel — deep in our bones — that we were always one community. We could feel it, just as we could feel we were home on our land. As each woman shared her story of how she felt standing on her land, I could feel it too,” she said. Dane-Fougnier said she had a deeper layer of healing, more pronounced than she had ever experienced before.
Skenandore-Wheelock said that returning to the ancestral homelands and having a place for all Oneida people to gather together, people to people, has always been talked about around the kitchen table. Her grandmother Mindemoye was responsible for converting an old bed and breakfast property into the “Nation House,” a meeting place in Canastota where her father worked on the Oneida land claims in the 70s.
“Our grandmothers talked about our three communities coming back together. Growing up, that was always the idea,” said Skenandore-Wheelock. “We lost our land and were displaced. It’s been 200 years that we’ve been separated; we couldn’t wait for our governments to come together, so we did something.”
Samantha Doxtator’s ancestors were part of the removal to Wisconsin, but as a matter of survival, a contingent of them stopped in what became Oneida, Ont., near London. The journey proved deadly and traumatic. Oneida lives were lost along the way, people drowned in sinking boats, and died from starvation and illness.
Doxtator is still researching what happened to her ancestors, some of whom went to Oneida, WI first, and then later took root in Ontario. But if New York had run them out of the state, Canada’s treatment of the Oneida people was no better." Many of the traditional title holders moved to Oneida, Ontario. Others title holders remained in New York State to oversee the people that stayed behind. "They pretended to be Baptists and had to hide the fact that they held titles,” said Doxtator. “In the 1920s up to 1950s, it was illegal to conduct ceremonies in Oneida, Ont. Ceremonies were held underground and had to be kept secret.”
The story of the Americas over the Native people was one of willful depravity in the conquest of people and the usurpation of lands. The Discovery Doctrine is an accepted concept of public international law expounded by the US Supreme Court. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring aboriginal possession of land in favor of colonial and post-colonial governments. The Doctrine governs United States Indian Law today and was central in the 2005 Sherrill decision.
Haines, who may now forever be known as the woman who gave nearly 30 acres of gorgeous land back to the Indians, said, “I am aware of the Doctrine of Discovery and I know the horror of the impacts of that on the indigenous people. Haines said it is important for people to realize what has been done to the Oneidas. “It’s important to think about what we can do to make things right,” she said. “We can talk about reparations, but how do we repair the harm we’ve done?” she asked.
Schenandoah was forced to abandon her plan to help lead a legal crusade to reclaim lands long lost by hook and crook. But she never gave up her zeal to pursue land reclamations. Instead, she found a new approach: strength in women. She has played a critical role in bringing about awareness of Native womens’ issues and as a result, was instrumental in securing the land gift received. But the work of the women is not over; they will not go quietly into the night.
Schenandoah has mighty hopes and ambitions that with the continued gathering of minds, the women can help reshape thinking in the world. She would like to upend the thinking attached to the Doctrine of Discovery. “We hold so much knowledge. There are things we want to address,” she said. Indigenous people have offered alternative approaches to the world, posed co-existence and more healthy relationships with the environment for long-term sustainability. She believes change can happen “when we come together as one mind.”
Portia Skenandore-Wheelock believes that the reclaiming of this acreage will make the three distinct Oneida communities whole again. “It’s just the beginning,” she said. “I watch the little ones running around in the grass. Knowing that we are creating and leaving a place for them is important. We will now always have a place in our homelands that will unify us. And there is strength in unity.”
Leslie Logan, Seneca, is a writer and PR consultant that has written for Indian Country Today, the National Museum of the American Indian, Aboriginal Voices and Indigenous Woman. She is the former communications director for the Seneca Nation and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.