It’s Not About Blood, It’s About the Important Stuff

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.

The neighbor's horses were always getting into our yard. My Dad having grew up on a farm rebuilt their barb wire fence for them

The neighbor’s horses were always getting into our yard. My Dad having grew up on a farm rebuilt their barb wire fence for them

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.

The Oneida Indians getting ready to perform at the last Packer game we went to

The Oneida Indians getting ready to perform at the last Packer game we went to

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.”

41 responses

  1. How cool. I actually am part Creek Indian on my dad’s side because for generations his family was based in Southern Georgia and my great-great grandfather was full blooded and created quite the scandal when he married my great-great- grandmother who was German-Irish from a VERY Southern family during reconstruction. I am very pale and definitely look more of the German/Scottish/Irish/English descent (while my dad is an exact replica of his great-grandpa – go figure), but I love that there is a little something extra in there too. 🙂 My mom’s family grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country and I remember visiting my great-grandma when I was younger and learning some of the mixed German-esque language her neighbors spoke but I can only remember a little phrase that involves some “chicken poop” too! How funny!

    • Wow! I bet that was a huge scandal back then! I guess everything worked out though because obviously many more generations came after them! I love those kind of stories! That is just sad that those swear words are the ones that stick with people! I know I learned all the animals names and a ton more but do you think I remember any of those??? NO!

      On an unrelated note….I watched Elementary last night and LOVED it!

  2. I have Iroquois and Cherokee very strongly in my background. Some hid in the mountains from the Trail of Tears, so none of the recent family was raised “culturally” Native Americans. My grandpa told me that my great-grandma was 3/4 Cherokee, though. It’s funny the things we learn from different cultures that are completely random, like the swearing. lol I enjoy pow-wows even though I wasn’t raised in the culture at all, though.

    • Oh boy! Wouldn’t it be so interesting to have the stories from your ancestors…can you imagine hiding in the mountains during that time? You come from hearty stock if they survived that and went on to raise a family and many more generations! And yes, the pow-wows are amazing no matter your background!

      • I would love to hear those stories! My grandpa didn’t tell us about our ancestry until after my great-grandma had passed away, though. She probably knew the stories, but was raised in that tradition of being silent in public about her heritage and trying to blend into white America.

  3. I only remember how to count to 5. (Melissa’s older brother) The Oneida swear I remember is pronounced snudgey wouglas, it means stinky butt. I love that those were the only “profanities” in their language.

  4. Melissa, thanks for sharing your story of Unity. That’s what Life is about getting together as one. We are all one family and it is truly a great thing to do. Be Blessed, Mtetar

  5. This is the reason I love reading your posts! I never know which snippet of history you’re going to share. I think it’s fascinating that you grew up learning about the Oneida Indian culture. What’s even more beautiful is that your family taught you to love and appreciate other cultures. Sadly, there are people who aren’t that receptive or tolerant in some parts of the country.
    On a side note, I would give anything to see a vlog of you dancing and chanting in true Indian fashion. I would also give anything to try one of their tacos!

    • Thank you Anka! This is why I love blogging! Obviously, I thought I was only going to write about motherhood on here but as these random thoughts pop into my head and I write about them no one can fire me right?!! I would definitely be the laughing stock of Blogland if I posted that vlog!! Those indian tacos are the best! Whenever I am out that way visiting my parents and I see a church selling them for a fundraiser I always stop in and buy one!

  6. I feel like this could be turned into a movie! Your description of you and the little girl meeting at the barb wire fence made my heart happy 🙂 It’s rare for a white woman to understand what it’s like being a minority, too, ya know? Great memory and fantastic story!

  7. You tell so much of your life in this – and I am glad. I adore the American Indian stories so thank you for sharing how your life was. I can just imagine you ‘standing’ in doing the dancing and chanting 🙂 Well done Mel, another great post. xx

    • Thank you Jen! The Native Americans have such an interesting history! haha!!! I had to do the dance in my living room yesterday to figure out a way to describe it for the story! I’m sure the neighbors and people driving by had a nice chuckle!

  8. I loved this Melissa.My two girls that are adopted wanted to find out they had Indian blood and I thought that was so cool until one of them told me it was because they heard that they hardly have any body hair.Go figure teens!

  9. Another great post Melissa. Reading it all the way from Australia, your experiences with Indian culture sound fascinating. For people who have Indian heritage, they should try looking up the archives because I know in Australia there were anthropologists who filmed or recorded the Aboriginal people and they could see footage of their ancestors. It might be worth a try.

    • Thanks Rowena! Hmmm…I know very little about the Aborigines and I never knew they were the ancestors to the Native Americans. I am certainly going to have to brush up on my Aborigine knowledge! I bet they teach that in the schools there as part of the curriculum!

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