Luedtke – Oneida Museum

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Welcome to the Oneida Nations Museum. My name is Sara Summers Luedtke and I am the assistant director and collections manager at the museum. We have an exhibit area on the first floor that visitors can go through as well as a gift shop. And outside we have a replica longhouse as well as a nature trail, which has some of the trees and plants marked and a seasonal Three-Sisters garden. The museum was opened in 1979 and the Oneida Tribe received funds from a Bicentennial grant when they decided to build a museum with that money. The museum started with a small collection of objects obtained from community members as well as a small collection that the director at the time had. In 1995 the museum purchased a large collection from the Turtle Museum, which was in New York. At the time it was closing so the museum bought a lot of their collection and that essentially doubled our own collection. And we have had objects on loan from the Milwaukee Public Museum and those eventually became part of our collection because of NAGPRA rules and regulations.

When visitors come to the museum, we have them start with the Creation Story. And this painting depicts a portion of the Creation Story. The Creation Story can last up to two days and we give a significantly shortened version. Basically, for the Oneidas, our world began in the sky. And Sky Woman and Sky Man and all the Sky People lived up there. That’s Sky Woman in the painting. And she was pregnant at the time and she asked her husband to dig up the roots of the celestial tree, which was the tree up there that gave the Oneidas everything that they needed, all the food and medicines and everything that they needed. So he started digging one day and he got tired and went home. And Sky Woman was really craving the roots. She wanted to make tea from the roots. And so she went herself to continue digging and eventually dug a hole right through the ground. And in doing so she ended up falling through this hole. And when she was falling she grabbed two plants—the tobacco plant and the strawberry plant—and those became important medicines for the Oneidas. And while she was falling, the water animals below looked up and saw this big bright hole in the sky. And this woman falling and they weren’t quite sure what to make of this. So they sent up some water birds who caught her and prevented her from falling into the water, and the turtle offered his back so that the Sky Woman could have a place to land. So the water birds brought her down and put her on turtle’s back. And she was lonely and missing her family and everything up in Sky World. And the one thing that would make her feel better was to be able to plant the plants that she brought with her. So three water animals went down to the bottom of the water to try to get some dirt to bring up to turtle’s back. The Beaver was the first to try and he wasn’t able to get down far enough. Then the Otter went down too and he had the same problem—he couldn’t get down there far enough. And the Muskrat was the last one to try and he was able to grab a small pawfull of dirt and brought it back up and put it on Turtle’s back. And Sky Woman rubbed Turtle’s back in a counterclockwise direction and from there it grew into what we refer to today as North America or Turtle Island.

The symbolism found in our oral traditions plays a big role in our decorations, and a lot of our symbols can be found in things like this afghan that’s a contemporary piece. You can see the tribal seal which incorporates the tree of peace, the eagle, and our three clan animals. And it also has the Oneida wampum belt at the bottom. This kastowe has the beaded wampum design at the bottom. And these arm bands incorporate the skydome and the tree of peace that was found, that’s talked about in the creation story. And this design has a lot of variations and is a really common design and it’s used in trim on skirts or leggings and a lot of different beadwork patterns. These necklaces have designs that incorporate our clan animals as well as the tree of peace. And you’ll see a lot of these designs not only in the museum, but throughout the reservation. A lot of our buildings are decorated with wampum designs and our elementary school is actually built in the shape of a turtle. And some of the trim around the museum has a variation of the skydome and the tree of peace sticking out of it.

In addition to the historical aspects of Oneida culture, we think it’s really important to address the contemporary aspects of our culture and to let our visitors know that our Oneida culture is still alive and thriving today. And one of the aspects where we see this continuation of cultures is in our arts, and this exhibit highlights three of our traditional arts—pottery, basket weaving, and beadwork. And the traditional design of a piece of pottery—it had an elongated body and a shoulder as well as a collar. And that was done to allow a rope to be tied around it, so that it could be hung over a fire for use in cooking. And they say that that shape traditionally represents a strawberry, which comes back to the creation story again. And now a lot of the more contemporary pieces have designs as well as symbols of our culture in them.

The original beads were probably nuts or deer antlers and maybe some shells. And then as time went on and European influence came, we would use glass beads as well as fabrics, like calicos, in our clothing and decoration. So the beadwork, a lot of the beadwork was created for tourists and you’ll see a lot of our beaded pin cushions that have phrases on them, like “Forget Me Not.” That one was from Niagara Falls in 1905. And because we were traditionally from New York, a lot of Iroquois artists, bead workers, would sell their pieces at Niagara Falls. During the Depression as well, the women made a lot of baskets to sell and so those became a means of economic relief for some people.

My name is Sara Summers-Luedtke and I am the Assistant Director and Collections Manager at the Oneida Nation Museum. I began my museum career actually at this museum in 1994. I did a summer internship while I was in college studying Anthropology. And I came back the next year because I liked it so much. It really piqued my interest in preserving culture and making it available for the future.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar

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

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