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What is the Oneida Tribe?

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  • Written By: Brenda Scott
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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The Oneida Tribe is a federally recognized group of Native Americans located in Wisconsin; the Oneida Indian Nation, also from the same tribe, is a separate legal entity located in New York State. Members of the Oneida tribe live in Canada as well as the Northwestern United States. The name Oneida, or Onyotekaona, means "people of the standing stone." For centuries, the Oneida would relocate their villages every twenty years or so when the soil and game were depleted. According to legend, a large stone which stood at the village entrance would mysteriously follow the migrating natives, standing tall outside each new village.

The family and political structure of the Oneida tribe is very similar to that of their allies, the Mohawk. Like the Mohawk, they have three clans; the bear, turtle and wolf. The roles of the women were similar as well, and it was the women who nominated the chiefs and chose the representatives to the Iroquois Grand Council. They lived in longhouses made from wood frames and bark, and were farmers, hunters and traders. They were fond of games and gambling, and were avid lacrosse players.

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The Oneida were one of the founding tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations. The Oneida were also friendly with the white settlers and many converted to Christianity. When tensions between the British and the colonists led to the Revolutionary War, the Oneida and Tuscarora supported the Americans, breaking with the Mohawk and other members of the Confederacy who chose to support the British or remain neutral. In 1777, at the Battle of Oriskany, Oneida and colonial troops were ambushed by British and Mohawk warriors. This was one of the only times in the centuries-long history of the Confederacy that members fought against one another.

Throughout the Revolutionary War, the Oneida tribe offered invaluable assistance to the colonists. When Washington and his troops were starving at Valley Forge, Chief Shenandoah and a group of Oneida traveled over 200 miles (231.87 km) to bring several hundred bushels of corn to the men. Polly Cooper, a member of the Oneida tribe, stayed behind to teach the men how to cook the dried corn into palatable food. In retaliation for their assistance to the Colonists, Confederacy nations burned the largest Oneida village and kept them from their homeland for five years after the end of the war.

In 1754, lands were given to the Oneida Tribe in the Treaty of Canandaigua, when all Six Nations were promised a permanent homeland in New York. The state legislature, however, was not in favor of the extent of the lands granted and whittled away at the territory, greatly reducing the acreage. Concerned about the continued encroachment, small groups of Oneida members began migrating in 1822 to Wisconsin, which was then part of the Michigan territory. A treaty in 1858 granted the Oneida Tribe a reservation southwest of Green Bay, which is still Oneida territory. Other members of the Oneida tribe settled around Ontario, Canada.

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