The Oneida Indian Nation: America’s First Ally — A History No Longer Ignored

Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter with a framed copy of the U.S. Constitution and the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month and in anticipation of our upcoming program Tribal Courts in New York: Case Study of the Oneida Indian Nation on Nov. 20th, we bring you this article written by the Oneida Indian Nation on their history and culture.

Photo: Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter with a framed copy of the U.S. Constitution and the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua.

The story of America’s founding is often left incomplete in the history textbooks that repeatedly omit Native voices. The Oneida Indian Nation is proud of its legacy as America’s First Allies, but sadly, many generations of American citizens are unaware of our ancestors’ impact on the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States.

In the fight for independence from a tyrannical king, the colonists were aided in several major battles in the Revolutionary War by the Oneida Indian Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Our ancestors, opposed to the other Haudenosaunee Nations that decided to support the British, made the extraordinarily difficult decision to fight for the fledgling United States and became forever known as America’s First Allies.

“Oneidas at the Battle of Oriskany” painting by artist Don Troiani
“Oneidas at the Battle of Oriskany” painting by artist Don Troiani

That friendship was forged — and cemented — after the Battle of Oriskany on August 6, 1777, preventing the British from advancing an expeditionary force intended to join other British forces marching south from Canada. If the two forces united, they may have succeeded in seizing Fort Stanwix, a critical trading post in the northeast, and divided the colonies in half.

Later that winter, several Oneida, including Han Yerry and Polly Cooper, travelled alongside the Marquis de Lafayette to aid Gen. George Washington and his troops in Valley Forge. They brought with them around 60 bushels of corn, immediately boosting the morale of the hungry soldiers at a critical time during the war.

In May of 1778, Gen. Washington ordered Lafayette and the Oneidas to Barren Hill, about halfway between Valley Forge and Philadelphia, to intercept the British retreating back to New York. The British launched the first attack, but Lafayette’s small militia withstood the barrage with relatively few casualties. They slowed British forces long enough for Washington’s army to shadow the remaining British soldiers trying to get to New York, leading to the last major battle in the north at Monmouth.

When the United States were finally established, President George Washington, Oneida Chief Skenandoa and the chiefs of the other Haudenosaunee Nations signed the Treaty of Canandaigua on November 11, 1794. The document established “peace and friendship” between the United States and the Six Nations. It also involved an American promise to never seize or disturb native lands and recognized the Oneida Indian Nation as a sovereign entity.

The friendship and the spirit of that treaty still lives in the heart of what we do today. While the role the Oneidas played in the American fight for freedom may not be prominent in most history books, our efforts to protect our legacy as the First Allies to the Americans are taking shape on a national scale.

A slow steady climb and dedicated perseverance has led to a resurgence for the Oneida Indian Nation, which today prospers through many diverse enterprises. This economic upturn has allowed us to provide many programs and services to our Members as well as reinvest in our enterprises and community to become an economic engine in the Central New York region.

In 1993, we began the construction of our Shako:wi Cultural Center. It was built by native workers out of scored logs of white pine — the sacred tree of peace — to educate future generations of Oneidas, as well as the general public, of the Oneida Indian Nation’s history and traditions through a collection of artifacts and unique exhibits.

“Allies in War, Partners in Peace" exhibit
Oneida Indian Nation Members and Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian at the dedication of the enhanced exhibit “Allies in War, Partners in Peace.”

Ten years later, the Oneida Indian Nation committed $10 million to the building of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to support American Indian education and discovery on a larger scale. On the top floor, a nearly 20-foot high bronze statue — the “Allies in War, Partners in Peace” statue — commemorates the bond between the two nations.

Full of Oneida allegory, the 2,200-pound bronze sculpture depicts Oneida Chief Skenandoa and Oneida woman Polly Cooper, along with Gen. George Washington. The statute symbolizes the friendship that was forged during the Revolutionary War. The Museum recently installed a new, interpretive surround experience that enhances the storytelling of the historic alliance with light, sound, and projected imagery in an imaginative display.

Museum of the American Revolution
Oneida Indian Nation Members at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier on the day of the grand opening of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. PA.

We also contributed to and participated in the planning of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia to ensure our story, which is so vital to the founding of the country, is told faithfully and accurately. The entire second-floor atrium at the Museum is named for the Oneida Indian Nation, and a prominent gallery, complete with recreated settings, pays homage to the rich historical account of the Oneida Nation’s heritage. This will help preserve the Nation’s culture, share its historic bonds with the founding fathers, and ensure that generations to come can learn about the Nation’s important contributions to establishing the foundation of the United States.

Today, the Oneida Indian Nation has regained more than 18,000 acres of their original homelands — the most we have had recognized sovereignty over since 1824. Our people are thriving again because of the Oneida Indian Nation’s continued efforts supporting and improving access to higher education, health care, and housing. Sovereignty has given us the ability to take ownership of our future and build a sustainable environment unto the seventh generation.

About the Oneida Indian Nation

The Oneida Indian Nation is a federally recognized Indian nation in Central New York. Currently, the Oneida Nation consists of approximately 1,000 enrolled Members, about half of whom still live on their homelands. Through ingenuity, tenacity and hard work, the Oneida people have created a wealth of new opportunities and hope for their Nation and the Central New York region. While holding fast to its traditions and culture, the Nation now enjoys a level of prosperity, through the success of its enterprises, that provides housing, education, health and cultural services to its Members.


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