Nestled among the old green hills of central New York lies a tiny sovereign nation. Most cars simply speed by it, but if you slow down, you’ll hear the noisy Canadian geese overhead, flapping their way back south for the winter. There’s a smell of woodsmoke and sweetgrass as you walk up the wide plank steps of the cultural center, named Shako:Wi: or `He Gives.’
If one enters the structure, built of heavy, peeled, white pine logs, and listens to the Clan Mothers, they will say the People of the Standing Stone and the territory upon which they live have been here since time began. Note that this is not a reservation, the Oneida have always lived here. During the American Revolution they helped the cause of the colonists and they remain an unconquered Nation today.
The Clan Mothers can tell you this story in English or the Oneida language, which is taught at the Cultural Center. Down the road in another building, the story is told in another tongue: html: HyperText Markup Language, which provides the grammar for World Wide Web pages on the Internet.
At the current homepage of the Oneida Indian Nation, you can take a virtual tour to the Oneida territory. Click on the Cultural Center to hear the language spoken or visit some of the intriguing exhibits. You can learn about nikohla’ or wampum and discover that it was not used by native people as money, contrary to legend. You will discover the hidden history of Polly Cooper, among others, an Oneida woman who helped keep George Washington and his troops from starving during the winter of 1777-78 in Valley Forge. In gratitude for Polly’s gift of time and expertise in cooking and medicine, Washington gave her a shawl which, along with the oral tradition of the Polly Cooper story, remains a treasured relic of the Oneida people. At the Oneida homepage you can also peruse a cookbook with native recipes or look in on the activities of the Oneida Nation police force that has federal, state, and local authority on the territory. There is much to see and do on these pages if you take the time to explore.
I am not native, but I am fortunate to have played a small role in the history of how one American Indian nation was the first to also claim territory in cyberspace; this is that story. On September 15, 1997, I interviewed Dale Rood, Special Projects Technician and Men’s Council Member, representing the Turtle Clan of the Oneida Indian Nation (OIN). He was joined by OIN employees Dan Garrow, MIS Director and a member of the Mohawk Nation, and Dan Umstead, Internet Coordinator. Following are excerpts from that interview.
Q: Can you give me, in a nutshell, the history of the OIN?
Rood: “The Oneida Indian Nation is a member nation in the Iroquois confederacy, which also includes the Mohawk, Seneca, Tuscarora, Cayuga, and Onondaga. The confederacy pre-dates the U.S. Constitution. In fact, as a Marble Hill Oneida, I can trace my own roots back nine generations. Today, there are about 1,100 Oneidas.”
Q: The first thing you see when you open the OIN Home Page is the OIN seal. Can you tell me a little about the iconography represented by the various symbols?
Rood: “The seal has great significance. The eagle at the top of the tree is the sentry over the nation, the white pine is the tree of peace and you can see the purity of the white roots. The club underneath the tree shows that we buried our weapons there.”
Garrow: “That’s part of the story of the Iroquois confederacy’s formation — that the Peacemaker buried the weapons of the various member nations under the roots of that tree. The animals shown — the Turtle, Wolf, and Bear — represent the Oneida clans. The belt is the Oneida wampum belt.”
A Chance Meeting
Q: How did the idea of getting a connection to the Internet and creating a web page come about?
Garrow: “Dale and I were on a plane on the way back from New York City after attending an IBM class there. Sitting in the same row with us was Jim Luckett, the Executive Director of NYSERNet, which was the main academic network in New York state at that time. During the flight, he whipped out his portable Macintosh and started keying away, so of course we got talking to him and he mentioned What he did at NYSERNet. We made a meeting appointment and that’s how you got involved. Then you and he came over to talk to us about getting a connection, I think it was December of 1992.”
Umstead: “In May 1993, I was employed by the nation. As a librarian I was very familiar with what the Internet could do for the nation. I met up with Dale and Dan and we compared notes. Soon we had a dial-up account we could use for nation reference work. Several native listserv discussion groups had been active for awhile, and we realized we could use them as a vehicle for our official press releases. We sent out the first one September 1, 1993 and after that, we started putting out our press releases on a regular basis. We sent them to places like `NATIVE-L.’ We may have been the first to send out press releases over this list, which was mainly for discussion by native students and interested others.
“In February 1994, I got together with you and NYSERNet and you said why don’t you consider doing a web page? We sat down — Dale, Dan, a couple other folks, and myself and we thought about what we might do. That following May, with your help, the web page went up on space donated by NYSERNet.”
Garrow: “Ray Halbritter, our nation representative and CEO, has always been a proponent of technology and has given us the resources we need to move forward. So technology and computers already were in daily use at the nation, and this seemed like a logical extension of what we had already begun.”
How the Web Was Woven
Q: What did you hope to do with your web space at first?
Rood: “It has always been the position of the Men’s Council, as a forward-thinking body, that the Internet was a way to tell our story as Oneida people. We have always wanted to be `ahead of the curve’ and part of being ahead was to be on top of technology. It just seemed like the next step. The web page for us, and as part of the government of this nation, has been invaluable to save parts of our history. To be able to tell the history that one can’t readily get in any schoolbook or in any other written documentation — we are able to tell our own story, the Oneida nation story.”
Umstead: “The general public doesn’t know a lot about Indians. For example, there is a misconception that all Native Americans live out west! Being on the web helped open up lots of people’s eyes to the fact that there is a very, very large native population on the east coast, one which has far more impact on non-native culture than was ever realized. In fact, we’re one of the first points of contact for nonnative people cruising the Internet. It’s also made people around the world realize what a strong community the native community is in this country, which they didn’t know before. And, the historical and illustrative material was done with input from the elders, and it’s all primary source material.”
The rest of this article can be read on the Cultural Survival website.