Gerzetich – Oneida Museum

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My name is Josh Gerzetich and I’m the cultural educator here at Oneida Nation Museum, which means I’m in charge of all the educational programming. I write all the tours and all the presentations that are given. I’m in charge of giving most of them. So basically my job entails that whenever a group comes I’m the one that gives them a tour. If someone has questions about something, I’m the one that answers the questions. I also go out to different groups, sometimes school groups, sometimes other groups, other societies, any gathering that wants to know more about us. And I go there and I speak to them.

This area here is our hands-on area. All the stuff in this little mock longhouse can be touched, picked up and felt. Kids can come in and get a feel for, instead of just hearing me talk about our culture, can actually pick things up and look at it. Many of the things they either bought at powwows or had a local person make. Like our condolence cane was made by a local Oneida named David Docksteader, who works part time here at the museum. He made this cane for us. But what a condolence cane is, is the Oneida [were] part of a group of tribes (history books refer to us as the Iroquois or the Iroquois Confederacy). The Iroquois Confederacy consists of six tribes—there’s the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca, and the Tuscarora. And those six tribes elect 50 chiefs. This condolence cane has 50 pegs that represent the 50 chiefs. And what a condolence cane is that when a chief would die there would be a ceremony and they would take one of the pegs out. And then when they elected a new chief, there would be another ceremony and they would put the peg back in. That new chief would take the old chief’s name. These names here are titles that passed from chief to chief. And all these chiefs served on what was called the Grand Council, which was our governing body for the five, what became the six, Nations later on.

We also have cradle boards—there’s one on this side and one on that side. This is how they carried children. They’d put them in a cradle board, they’d swaddle them in, and tie them down. And then this bar here was used for holding like a roll bar so in case it fell it wouldn’t crush the child. They’d strap the cradle board onto their back, they’d hang it in a tree so the child could see them when they were working in the field so that it wouldn’t be scared when it was by itself. Cradle boards are still used today. There are a couple of families I know of that still use cradle boards. They’re not just an Oneida thing; they’re a Native American thing in general. Families I know that use them take them and hang their children on the walls in different rooms when they’re working in the kitchen or doing dishes. They put their kid on the wall.

This display here is a display about our governments. On the right hand side there are our more contemporary government called the Business Committee or BC. The BC was started in 1936. The reason they started the BC was because during the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt had a bunch of new programs that are referred to as The New Deal. There was also a bunch of programs that affected Native Americans that are referred to as the Indian New Deal. In 1934 Congress passed an act called the Indian Reorganization Act. It basically gave Indians all these different programs and all this money to do all this different stuff. The catch was in order to get this money, or in order to take advantage of these programs they had to reorganize their governments in a way that resembled the United States’s government. It had to be based on the Constitution. So what the Oneida did in the 1930s was they started the Business Committee or BC. In 1936 it was a 5 member board that was elected. They decided what the tribe was going to do as a whole. It ruled by majority. So 3 people was all they needed to pass something through. Today the Business Commitee is a 9 member board. That’s the current Business Committee, those 9 people in that picture there. And they are elected by the GTC, the General Tribal Council, which is any Oneida over the age of 18. They are the ones that elect the Business Committee. The Business Committee still does things by majority. So now they need 5 members to vote one way in order for them to pass different laws or do things on the reservation.

On the left hand side, this is our traditional government. And this whole entire story of how it started and all the rules are done in a traditional story that’s referred to as the Great Law. The Great Law takes on average 10 days to tell. And one of the things the Great Law does for us is that it sets up a system of government for us. There are 5 tribes and these 5 tribes elect 50 chiefs , and these 50 chiefs serve on what is called the Grand Council. In order for us to do anything, all 50 of these chiefs have to agree. Chiefs who served in the Grand Council served for life and they were elected by the Clan Mothers, or the women elected the chiefs. So it was thought the Clan Mothers watched all the kids grow up and they knew who was best suited to be chief so they would elect the chiefs. So at the Grand Council there would be 50 chiefs. There was also 50 clan mothers and the clan mothers sit in the back of the room. It’s the clan mother’s job to make sure that the chief is acting in the best responsibility of the people. It’s her job is to make sure you’re acting in everyone’s best interest. And even today in Grand Council, when a chief is talking, if the clan mother doesn’t agree with what he says—they all sit in the back, like I said—and they all have canes usually, either that or they’ll pound on the floor, and that’s to let the speaker or the chief know that she doesn’t agree with what he’s saying or he needs to get back on topic or whatever. She doesn’t get up and yell at him in front of everyone. But she does that and everyone in the room knows what it means.

This here is called a “kastowe,” which means “feathers hanging” or “feathers standing.” It’s the traditional headwear of the Iroquois or the Haudenosaunee. This particular one here belonged to an Oneida Nation member. You can tell because the eagle feathers on top tell you which nation the person wearing it belonged to, and the Oneida had two eagle feathers that pointed up and one that pointed down. And that meant that you were Onedia. There are other little, smaller feathers on here, mainly turkey feathers and some plumage. And what a “kastowe” is, the frame is made from black ash splints, the same splints that they would use in basket making. And they would take these splints and they would form a circle. And there’s a cross on top. There’s a splint here and a splint here and they cross at the very top. And then they wrap these splints—not always, some of the splints are left natural—but these ones they wrapped in leather and they put a piece of fabric or felt on the inside. They could put it on the outside if they wanted as well. There’s not a really a set way to make a “kastowe,” as long as it has the splints and the feathers. And on this particular one around here, they have wampum beads that are purple and white around the band.

This is a “quahog” shell, which is only found on the east coast where fresh and saltwater meet. It’s what we use to make our traditional wampum from, what we do make our traditional wampum from. The beads are white and purple , which is what the “quahog” shell is, it’s purple and white , which is where the purple and white colors come from in the museum and around our reservation and why they’re important colors to us, is because of this.

This wampum belt here is called the George Washington Covenant Belt, and it’s actually unique in the fact that most wampum belts were made by us, but this one was actually made by the United States and George Washington in particular, and given to us. And if you look at this belt here you can see that there are figures on it. There are 13 tall figures, which represent the 13 colonies and there are 2 small figures here in the middle, the one on the left represents the Seneca on the west and the one on the right represents the Mohawk on the east. And these two small figures are us, and there’s a longhouse in the middle that represents all the rest of us. And all these figures are holding hands. And when Washington gave us this belt, he said that we would always be friends and allies forever and he also said that we could stay on our lands for as long as we wanted. Which is the segue into “Oneida Removal and Re-settlement.”

Originally we are from this area right here, where this longhouse is right here, which is located now currently in the state of New York, in Upstate New York. We came here in three big migrations. That first group was called the Christian Party. A couple years after that there was a second group that came called the Apple Orchard Party. They were a group of Methodist Oneidas, also Christians. They followed the same route and they came. And then a couple years after that a third migration came, or a third group. They were called the Pagan Party. They were the traditional Oneidas that came. So what happened was, when they came on the boat, they stopped here and they decided to rest here. And some Oneidas liked it here so much that they decided to stay. So they got off the boat and they stayed here. And of course, when they got to Wisconsin there were already Native Americans here. The two tribes who are native to Wisconsin are the Menominee and the Ho-Chunk. They’ve been here for thousands of years. And when we got here we had to make a treaty with them for our original reservation. So in 1822, they made a treaty with the Menominee and the Ho-Chunk and our original reservation consisted of 8 million acres. It was this area all in green right here.

So, in 1831 Colonel Staumbach came and kind of forced us to sign a new treaty that made our reservation, cut our reservation down to this area in orange. And a couple years after that, they signed another treaty which cut our reservation down to this purple rectangle, which are the borders of the reservation today. So it took 16 years for us to go from 8 million acres down to about 65,000 acres.

So when we got here and had our reservation, which is this area in purple, and this is a map of our reservation, we continued to live like we always had, traditionally, communally, where everyone shared everything. Traditionally, in our villages no one was starving. If one person was starving, it meant that the whole entire village was starving, because we shared all of our resources and pulled them together. This is not the way the Europeans did things, not the way Americans did things. They didn’t really like us acting this way. They wanted us to act like they did. So what they did, I believe in 1887 I want to say, ’87 or ’89, Congress passed an act called the Dawes Allotment Act. And what the Dawes Allotment Act did is it broke up our reservation and each head of household or adult male received a certain number of acres. And what was supposed to happen is that once you got your little plot of land you were supposed to start farming on little family farms like the rest of the country did. So in 1891 they broke up our reservation and when they drew up the lines and broke up the reservation, they didn’t take into account any of the physical features on the landscape. So some people got all their land in swamp land, some people got rocky land that they couldn’t farm. Some plots were actually divided up where there’d be, some of the acres would be down here and some more would be up here like 5 or 6 miles away. And the people who couldn’t farm their land had to sell their land in order to survive, because we didn’t share anything after this, so they had to make a living somehow. So they ended up selling their land.

So what ended up happening is that by 1909, this map of the reservation here, the tribe only owned these areas in red on our reservation. So three years after the Burke Act happened, they lost a lot of our land. And in 1987, 80 years later, the tribe still only owned these areas here in red. And this third map here is a map of the end of last year, 2009, and the tribe owns all of these areas in red here. We own about 33% of our reservation. So what happened between [19]87 and [20]09? Basically Indian gaming. The casino revenue started coming in and allowed us to buy back a lot of our land as well as start up the programs, some of them I mentioned before. The tribal land is basically owned by the tribe and the tribe either sets up, they set up their buildings on it and their programs, like their health center, their police, are all done, are all put on tribal land. They also buy tribal land and they build housing complexes on it for low income and elderly families. That’s basically how they use the land today. But traditionally land has always been very important to us. It’s always been what we’ve fallen back on in times of trouble.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar

Production, Mike Media Group
Camera, Michael DiGioia
Video Editor, Kahrin Deines

Image credits:

Steamboat – Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division (cph.3g05940)
Green Bay – Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division (LC-USZ62-5034)

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