Who are the Oneida Indians?

C. K. Lanz

The Oneida Indians are a First Nation and Native American tribe with several bands in the United States and Canada and one of the founders of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Oneida first settled the Oneida Lake area in modern upstate New York before eventually splitting into a New York, Wisconsin and two additional bands that currently reside in the Canadian province of Ontario. The Oneida Indians in Wisconsin have a reservation of approximately 102 square miles (264 square km) just outside Green Bay, Wisconsin, while the New York Oneida Indian Nation owns some tribal land in and around Verona, New York. In Canada there are Oneida Indians in Southwold and Brantford, Ontario.

Some bands of Oneida Indians run their own health care facilities, in addition to school districts and tribal court houses.
Some bands of Oneida Indians run their own health care facilities, in addition to school districts and tribal court houses.

The first contact between the Oneida Indians and Europeans occurred in the 17th century, but the Iroquois Confederacy had been founded much earlier. The confederacy was a political alliance of tribes who agreed to act as one nation in matters of trade and conflict. The Oneida formed it with the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and eventually the Tuscarora. The members of the confederacy were also known as the Haudenosaunee, a name that translates as “people of the longhouse,” because the six tribes lived and acted as one family in the same home. The name Oneida is thought to be a corruption of onayotekaono meaning “people of the standing stone.” The Oneida tribe is divided into the wolf, bear and turtle clans, and if an Oneida Indian cannot identify his or her clan, the wolf clan typically bears the responsibility of adoption.

The confederacy initially adopted a policy of neutrality in the American Revolutionary war, but each member tribe eventually chose to participate in the conflict. The Oneida Indians, arguably influenced by a Protestant missionary named Samuel Kirkland, officially decided to support the rebel colonists but a minority supported the British. The Oneida were scouts and translators and some even fought as soldiers with the rebels but the tribe was diminished by the conflict. Although they were initially granted a reservation of 6 million acres (24,281,138 square km) in 1794, the Oneida Indians were divided into four bands by relocation efforts and saw their land holdings in New York reduced to only 32 acres (0.1 square km).

The Oneida bands in New York and Wisconsin enjoy a certain degree of sovereignty and economic prosperity. The Wisconsin tribe operates its own schools, police, housing, farms, food and elderly care service, a lottery called Big Green, and several casinos and resorts near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The New York band offers similar services including a health center and tribal court house and owns and operates the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York. The Canadian bands operate bingo halls, schools, community centers and parks.

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