In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, Indian tribes
faced serious threats to their very survival. The Dawes Act took away
reservation homelands, while the boarding school movement sabotaged tribal
languages, culture and memories. Children grew up foreign to their
heritage; and as knowledgeable elders died off, Native languages and
lifeways moved closer to extinction. Poverty and pessimism became the rule
rather than the exception in many Indian communities.
Today, many tribes have earnestly embarked on efforts to recapture their
cultures, relearn their ancient languages and restore pride in their
heritage. Such projects are indeed laudable in trying to regain such vast
and sometimes irreplaceable losses. Every so often, one of those
“irreplaceable” losses becomes a gem of a find.
In the course of his work as historian for the Oneida Indian Nation of New
York, Anthony Wonderley spent a great deal of time in libraries, museums
and other such archival repositories. While working at the nearby Hamilton
College Library in early 2001, he happened across a typewritten manuscript
from 1948 containing a cultural treasure trove.
Compiled by a non-Indian scholar named Hope Emily Allen, the document
retold dozens of Oneida folktales collected from two of her Oneida friends
in the early 1900s. This find spurred the writing of Wonderley’s remarkable
and informative book, “Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth and History: New York
Oral Narrative from the Notes of H.E. Allen and Others.” As its title
suggests, this must-read volume preserves aspects of Oneida Indian culture
that may otherwise have been lost to history.
“I think the Oneida story is well worth telling and should be known,”
Wonderley said during a recent interview. He added that many people in and
around the Oneida homelands in upstate New York believe that the Oneida
people have lost their identity. “But they stayed and constituted a
distinct community that has stayed in place and never left.”
Employing Allen’s manuscripts and a vast array of other sources, Wonderley
recreated Oneida oral tradition as it existed between 1880 and 1925. As it
was for all Indian peoples, these years were ones of great loss for the
Oneidas. After significant numbers of their tribe emigrated to Wisconsin
and Ontario, the remaining Oneidas struggled to persevere in two small
communities in their ancestral homeland, south of the present-day city of
Although tribal members often worked for and interacted with their
non-Indian neighbors, they carefully guarded their rich storytelling
heritage. The interest and care taken by Allen to record and preserve these
valuable examples of oral narrative is an incredible gift to present and
future students of Oneida and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) folklore.
Writing in an easily readable style, Wonderley draws readers into a magical
world of flying heads, stone giants and little people. He retells the
stories of how the bear lost his tail and how the chipmunk got his stripes,
among many others. Also included are dozens of illustrations of Oneida
pottery, pipes, combs and wampum.
Wonderley offers a detailed analysis of the Oneida stories, not only
finding aspects of similarity with tales from Wyandot and Huron lore but
also pointing out the uniquely Iroquoian characteristics they contain. He
noted how certain tales have evolved over the years, and pointed out
influences that may have come from European storytellers like the Brothers
While folklore can be useful and important to a people in many ways, the
story of Polly Cooper, the Oneida woman who brought food to Gen. George
Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge in 1777, proved quite
practical. The Oneidas used this story in an early land claim case to help
prove the nation’s long-lasting and special relationship with the U.S.
In 1916, attempts by non-Indians to illegally acquire the last parcel of
communally held land, a 32-acre plot known today as “the territory,” led to
a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (United States v. Boylan) that said the Oneida
people retained “aboriginal title to the soil” of that small tract of land.
This victory also bestowed federal recognition upon the Oneida Nation.
Wonderley writes in his final chapter that the Cooper story “was
articulated in characteristically Oneida fashion — the mythopoeic language
of storytellers uncomfortable in formal English expression and ill-at-ease
in an alien and often hostile courtroom setting … [The Oneidas] dusted
off a tradition and offered it to the world. In the context of the concern
created by Boylan, the old legend of Polly Cooper became salient.”
“Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth and History” will surely appeal to readers
on several levels. As the first major study of Iroquois folklore in
decades, Wonderley’s book offers much for the scholar interested in the
passage of ancient folklore through the oral tradition to the present.
Likewise, the historian interested in a story of cultural perseverance in
the face of hostile governments and neighbors, and the casual reader
looking for fantastic tales of Indian children and grandmothers, forest
animals and supernatural beings, will both enjoy this wonderful book.
“Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth and History” is published by Syracuse
University Press. For more information, visit
www.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu or call (315) 443-5534.