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Whither Whitesboro: Identity in America


An older version of the Village seal

“We have literate people, we have educated people.
But very few of them are really equipped with a democratic mind-set.
Civic education was the missing link.”
Azizullah Royesh, school champion in Afghanistan (NYT 1/23/16)

It’s not often that a small community in upstate New York becomes fodder for the national media but it happened in January for Whitesboro. For those who have been in hibernation or who have been following other goings-on at the national level, the issue has to do with a municipal seal, something most residents of every community in America don’t even know about or wouldn’t recognize if they saw it for their own community.

Issue #1: Where is the teaching of local history in the school curriculum in New York and elsewhere so residents do learn about the history of where they live?

The seal depicts an encounter between two male individuals of different races in contact with each other. At first glance it appears as if the white male is choking the other male. One observation from the reporting was the reference to the male being choked is the designation used to refer to him: Indian, American Indian, Native American, red man, and at the very end when a solution was at end, Oneida.

Issue #2: What colors can be used to refer to people: white? black? red? brown? yellow?

It would be helpful if the Thought Police promulgated the official guidelines on the acceptable and unacceptable colors of the rainbow to be used when referring to human beings so everyone could be educated in the proper terminology. Actually, using the colors of rainbow would omit certain colors but let’s not introduce science into the discussion.

Issue #3: At what point are the Oneida entitled to be referred to themselves by their own name instead of being lumped together into an amorphous people? What’s next? Saying they lived in wigwams and hunted buffalo because that is what real Indians, American Indians, Native Americans, and red people do?

According to village history, Hugh White, the founder of the village named after him, engaged in a friendly wrestling match with the Oneida chief in 1784, shortly after the American Revolution. Oneida Nation Council Turtle Clan representative Clint Hill  said the description of the seal’s portrayal did not seem patently offensive, although he had not seen it in person. The Oneidas typically had good relationships with area settlers, he said, and “Indian wrestling,” in which opponents place their feet together and use only one arm to try to throw the other person, is a common game among friends.”With the so-called Indian wrestling, you just knocked the person off balance,” he said. “We used to do it all the time as kids.”

The story of the friendship between the Oneida Nation and the United States has been obscured by the focus on an image that may actually depict what really happened, that is one wrestler defeated another. In so doing one may miss the story of the purpose of the match. Mano-a-mano contests are a time-honored to express relationships both positive and negative but it may take some investigative effort or education to determine which it is.

Issue #4: Should the historian credo of seeking to determine what really happened be abandoned for the easy task of taking events out of context?

During the American Revolution, the Oneida and the United States were allies most famously in the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. That battle helped prevent General Burgoyne’s plan to divide the former British colonies and end the war with a British victory from succeeding. Instead Burgoyne was defeated at Saratoga, the French joined our side, and the rest, as they say is history.

Issue #5: We have again forgotten the Oneida role in American history.

When Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824-1825, he visited various sites in the Mohawk Valley that were connected to his participation in the American Revolution. This included Rome, Oriskany, and Utica. Lafayette noticed that missing among the throngs that welcomed his return were the Oneida even though he was smack in the middle of Oneida land and precisely where their military contribution had been so important. He asked to see them and an audience subsequently was arranged. Some of the very Oneida who had served under him then met privately with Lafayette. They had much to talk about including how the Oneida had become America’s forgotten allies and lost much of their land (see Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution by Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin).

Issue #6: Are the Oneida part of America or an ally of America?

As it turns out, just as this incident was about to unfold, I was the invited guest of the Oneida Nation to participate in workshop at Turning Stone Resort. The purpose of the meeting was to help prepare a grant application to the NEH to produce a documentary on the very Battle of Oriskany. By further coincidence. I previously had been contacted by the Oneida County Historical Society in partnership with the National Park Service which manages the site of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix (in Rome) about being involved in planning for the 240th anniversary in 2017. I suggested that they along with the New York State site in Little Falls for General Nicholas Herkimer be invited to the Oneida program which they were. Herkimer had bled to death from injuries sustained in the battle. The American general was part of the Palatine settlement in the Mohawk Valley. These Germans too are a forgotten part of American history. By coincidence, the Oneida are popular performers in Germany but the connection with the Palatines in the Mohawk Valley has not been developed.

At the end of the workshop we were asked about the next steps. I raised the question of how did the Oneida people see themselves today: as allies of America like the French under Lafayette had been or as part of America like the Palatines, Dutch, Africans, English, and Scotch-Irish who created this country had been? Do they celebrate July 4 as the birth of their country? Do they consider George Washington as the father of their country? Are they part of We the People? I said there was no right or wrong answer to these questions and I was not asking in a legal sense. I also deliberately referred to the Oneida people not to the Oneida Nation. I don’t know what the Oneida answer to these questions will be but it will influence the story they wish to tell about the a pivotal battle that helped establish the United States as an independent country. What happened in the Mohawk Valley prior to the Oneida decision to ally with America against Britain and what happened afterwards are part of the story of the battle as well…and it is a story which is still unfolding as the recent event in Whitesboro demonstrates.

Issue #7: What are the national implications for Whitesboro Wrestlers?

Also in January as this event was unfolding, Joe Klein wrote a column for Time entitled “Why Race and Tribe Trump Economics in the Current Presidential Campaign.” He recalled a book by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics, where Moynihan predicted following the end of the Cold War that ethnicity would become a major point of contention in global politics.

Klein then wrote of the divisive approaches of the political parties in this country. While Trump and the Republicans receive most of the attention, Klein noted that the Democrats were second to none in its divisiveness despite its use of the word “inclusive.” He wrote that “the Democrats have slipped into backdoor tribalism as well.” The Democrats list “18 different affinity groups you can affiliate with—according to race, ethnicity, disability, gender and gender choice” at the upcoming national convention. Klein observed that the Democrats proposed policies to many of these groups in the 2014 elections but few that appealed to Americans as a whole.

So the questions I posed to the Oneida at the workshop are ones that have already been answered by the two political parties. For the Democrats one’s primary loyalty is to one’s hyphen and not one’s country (Robert E. Lee would have said state but the principal is the same).

Note: Hyphen refers to a group a people defined by race, ethnicity, disability, gender and gender choice who tend the vote the same way or an individual within that group is considered a traitor. “White” is not a hyphen group since knowing that the race of a voter is white is not a good indicator of how that person may vote. The Democrats aim smaller.

By contrast to the Democrats, the Republicans stress individuals and the people as long as they do not include, you know, “those” people.

At times like this, I recall America’s greatest wrestler, Honest Abe. He sought to wrestle the people north and south, native-born and immigrant, into a single country with malice towards none, with charity for all. He sacrificed his life in a quest that has remained unsuccessful to this very day. It is truly tragic that the Republicans have abandoned him, that the Democrats reject him, and that no presidential candidate aspires to be him. Only Hamilton the musical embraces that spirit in the national arena. Perhaps if the documentary is made and the story is told, the Oneida and the Battle of Oriskany can once again save the nation from being divided.

“Iowa Republicans [and Democrats] have a lot of choices
on Monday, none of whom bear any resemblance to the
second coming of Lincoln.”
Gail Collins, “An Iowa To-Do List,” NYT 1/30/16