I grew up next to an Indian reservation. Seriously, our next door neighbors land was considered reservation land. The community I grew up in consisted mainly of Oneida Indians and I was constantly immersed in their culture and learning about their history.
Even though I was born here, my parents were not. They grew up in small towns in southwestern Wisconsin. After my Dad earned a degree in Civil Engineering, he moved my Mom and sister to northeastern Wisconsin where he landed a job designing bridges and highways for the state.
We weren’t exactly welcomed into the community with open arms at first. Even though our land wasn’t zoned as reservation, our neighbors didn’t believe that white people should be living on it. They didn’t let their daughter play with me but she and I found a way around this. We would meet at the barb wire fence that divided our land and we would sit across from each other and talk through the wire barrier. Her parent’s ill feelings toward our family must have waned in later years as I remember her coming over and roller skating on my driveway with me from time to time.
During the summers when I was 4 and 5 years old I attended summer school at the community building. I wasn’t actually supposed to be able to attend as I wasn’t Oneida Indian but they let me anyway. I’m sure there were craft projects and games but the thing I remember most was the time slotted for learning the Oneida language. Most of what I learned has since been forgotten but I can still count to 10 in the language.
When I was 4 years old my Mom began working at the local nursing home. On her days off she would bring me there so I could visit with the residents. Many of them became my good friends and they told me such great stories. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any of their tales but I know even as a small child I was entranced by their history and what they shared with me. A lively old coot taught me how to swear in the Oneida language. I remember one of the sayings perfectly “Get-Get-Oh-Dah” which in family friendly terms means “chicken poop.” I guess my memory really only remembers the “really important stuff.”
My Mom and I began attending the local church when I was 7 years old. It was a small church and there were only a handful of people who attended that weren’t Oneida Indian. Every week we sang a few hymns that usually consisted of “Old Rugged Cross” and “He Has the Whole World in His Hands,” but then there was an allotted time devoted to singing three Oneida hymns that were sang in their language. They would hand out the booklets of the songs and even though they were in a language not our own it was pretty easy to sing along. The words mainly consisted of syllables but when you strung them all together it was pure magic. Every week I couldn’t wait to hear this beautiful music sung in words that I didn’t know the meaning of but could still understand that they had powerful message to them. There were two men who sat in the back that had deep bass voices that would do the underlying chants to the songs that reverberated through that small church and created a spectacular sound.
I’ve seen many powwows in my day. The community puts one on every year. Of course there is the delicious food offered at these events consisting of fry bread, Indian tacos and buffalo meat but then there is the actual dancing. The people get dressed up in the costumes that their ancestors would have worn hundreds of years ago, form a large circle and begin shaking their body and lifting their knees in a way that propels them forward slowly in an enchanting way. This mesmerizing dance is coincided with chanting. I have practiced this dance and the chants so many times in the privacy of my own home that I think if they ever needed a fill-in I would be a shoo- in.
My personal heritage is German and Norwegian but I grew up surrounded by the Oneida Indian culture. I know just as much about their history as I do of my ancestors’ backgrounds. I may not have Oneida blood in me but I know how to swear in their language and that is the “really important stuff.”