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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 23, 2002 - Issue 55


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Lessons in the Oneida Way

by Larry Richardson © 2002 The Post-Standard
credits:"No-face Dolls" courtesy Chickasaw
The 20 pupils in Maryellen Miller's fourth-grade class at Canastota's Roberts Street Elementary School listened to Oneida Indian storyteller Debbie Ninham relate the legend of the no-face doll.

The legend teaches of the dangers of vanity. It's about a doll who thought herself superior to other dolls until a hawk stole her reflection from a pond, leaving her with no face.

A few minutes later, the children were in a nearby room making their own no-face dolls from corn husks and string. Justin Rossi said his doll looked like a scarecrow.

The lesson was part of the children's recent visit to the Oneida Indian Nation's Shako:wi Cultural Center and its Education Resource Center, on Route 46 in Oneida.

All the fourth-graders in six classrooms at Roberts Street Elementary School made the visit to the cultural center, with each class going on one of three days.

"A lot of time our people go out into the schools, but we wanted the children to come here, to see this," said the nation's Jennifer Warner, pointing to some of the displays at the cultural center and the great white pine logs used to build it.

"It's an opportunity to educate the students about the history of the Oneida people," said Mark Emery, speaking for the Oneida Nation. "In school, that history is not a big part of the written curriculum. This enhances the curriculum they have."

Emery said the two-building visits, which are new this school year, are free to any schools that ask. "We are reaching out to the Silver Covenant school districts, but any school is welcome," he said. The Silver Covenant schools are those districts in which the Oneida Nation owns land. In those districts, the Oneidas make payments to the schools called Silver Covenant grants.

Miller's pupils and the 22 fourth-graders in Julie Kielbasinski's class made the field trip the same day.

Birdy Burdick, program coordinator for the Shako:wi Cultural Center, greeted the pupils in her regalia (traditional long dress) and moccasins. She taught them the three sisters (corn, beans and squash) and, through a story, told how the Iroquois nation was formed.

Within 20 minutes, Miller's pupils knew all six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

"American Indian is the politically correct term, not Native American," Burdick told the children. "Anyone born here is a native American."

As she talked, a hawk circled low in the sky outside the large windows that make up the east side of the cultural center, almost as though summoned to complement Miller's lessons.

The fourth-graders then visited the second-floor "Oneida Industries" display. On long-term loan from the State Museum in Albany, the life-size mannequins depict Oneida Indian life before contact with Europeans. The figures depict a moccasin maker, woodcarver, flint knapper, weaver, potter and basket maker.

Oneida Indians posed as models when the mannequins were made by anthropologist Arthur Parker early in the 20th century, Emery said.

Above the display is a 6-foot-wide stained-glass window depicting a white pine tree, the symbol of peace promised to those who follow the "great law" of the peacemaker; a bald eagle, to warn against approaching enemies of peace; and a wolf, turtle and bear, representing the three clans of the Oneida Indian Nation.

Burdick showed the pupils beadwork and baskets made by Oneidas.

"We were originally farmers," she said. "But when we started losing our land, we depended on our beads and our baskets to survive."

After a short walk to the Education Resource Center, the pupils began learning some words in the Oneida language. Their teacher was George Doxtator, a member of the Wolf Clan.

He taught them ohne:kanus (water), onu:ta (milk) and kahneka:ku (sweet drink, like orange juice). The children then drank samples of them.

Buffy Halbritter-Ellis led the lesson in corn husk doll making.

Fourth-grader Joanna Haase rolled one husk up, preparing to make the arms of her doll. She pretended it was a snow snake and motioned as if she were going to throw it, the way she learned Oneida men did many years ago.

Madison Danis admired the no-face doll she finished.

"I think it's a cute doll," she said. "I'll name it Isabella."

Doxtator stood at the side of the room, watching the children wrap up their two hours of learning about his culture.

"We do this so they'll know where we are coming from, why we talk the way we do and do the things we do," he said, pointing to the hands-on doll-making. "This is the Oneida way of doing things."

Oneida Indian Nation's Shako:wi Cultural Center

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