THE HISTORY OF ONEIDA WPA STORIES
Thirteen CD Set Compiled by Susan G. Daniels
Shortly after the stock market crash in 1929, the U.S. economy took a tremendous nose dive. Banks had invested people’s savings in the stock market and lost great sums of money. The effect was devastating. Americans all over the country were unable to gain access to their savings accounts and were unable to pay bills or mortgages. This resulted in many foreclosures on homes and farms. People were entering into a Great Depression. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. Roosevelt created the New Deal Program aimed at stimulating the economy by establishing government agencies and projects which provided jobs for millions.
One program created during the New Deal era included the Civilian Conservation Corps. Workers built roads and hiking trails in forests and national parks. In addition, these workers cleaned up public beaches and camp sites and planted trees. The Works Progress Administration was another program developed during this time. Projects included slum clearance, flood control, rural electrification and construction of schools and hospitals. These programs were designed to put millions of Americans to work instead of on welfare roles.
A second program of the Works Progress Administration included a Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, Federal Writers Project and an Historical records survey. The Federal Art Project had employed just over 5,000 visual artists and related professionals. Included was a mural project with 2,500 murals painted in hospitals, schools and other public places; an easel painting division, which produced nearly 108,000 paintings; a sculpture division, producing close to 18,000 pieces; a scenic design division which produced models of historic stage sets and architectural models; a poster division and a stained glass division located in New York.
The Federal Music Project employed 16,000 musicians including ensembles, orchestras, chamber groups, choral and opera units, concert, military and dance bands and theater orchestras. An estimated 5,000 performances were given before an audience of three million people each week! Local groups co-sponsored these performances, greatly reducing the admission prices to the general public.
The Federal Theater Project employed close to 13,000 people with theater units established in 31 states and New York City. The groups presented more than 1,000 performances each month before audiences of nearly one million people. Over 1,200 plays were produced within a four-year period of time. Plays were also broadcast over the radio reaching millions of listeners.
The Federal Writers Project employed close to 7,000 writers at its peak with projects active in 48 states. 800 titles were produced by 1941. The American Guide Series was produced through this project and provided descriptions of towns, villages, waterways, historic sites, along with extensive oral histories, folklore and essays about local life. And finally, the Historical Records Survey employed archivists to identify, collect and conserve historical records throughout the United States.
All areas of the county were affected by the New Deal programs. Of particular interest, is the work that was performed in our own community. Remnants of New Deal homes still exist on parts of our reservation. These homes maintain a rich history that deserve preservation and restoration. Another interesting program that impacted our community was the Federal Writers Project. Floyd Lounsbury and Morris Swadesh were instrumental in directing and overseeing the Works Progress Administration or WPA stores that were gathered in the Oneida community during 1939. Over 800 short stories were collected along with 167 notebooks. In the short stories, the thirteen original interviewers, all Oneida, included Oscar Archiquette, Ida Blackhawk, Tillie Baird, Guy Elm, John Skenandore, Walter Skenandore, Lewis Webster, David Skenandore, Dennison Hill, Lafront King, Andrew Beechtree, Stadler King and Alex Metoxen, stories were written in Oneida and later translated into the English language. These works have never been published but three full sets were maintained. One remained in the Oneida community, one with Floyd Lounsbury and the third was housed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. These stories contain a rich and unlimited source of historical information for anyone interested in critically analyzing its contents.
The main subjects include stories on Alcohol, Animals, Band, Events, Food, Government, Health, History, Hunting, Names, Oneidas, Oneida Works, Places, Religion, Schools, Stories “About” or “Told By or “Told To”, the Supernatural, Tribes and War. Within each of these categories are hundreds of stories on specific events, times, places and people.
Many community members were interviewed, sharing accounts of historical events that affected our people. Such stories include information about community meetings held to discuss the adoption of our IRA government, the building of Parish Hall, good fishing spots, planting, harvesting, maple syrup, marriage customs and general lessons about life. Some of the people interviewed include Louisa Christjohn, Antone Swamp, Nelson Cornelius, Chauncey Baird, Elizabeth Webster and Mary Parkhurst, to name a few.
During the 1970s Maria Hinton and Amos Christjohn brought these stories back to life. Efforts were being made in the community to relearn the Oneida language, and one attempt included publishing these stories in the KaliWisaks in the Oneida language with an English translation. Together, Maria and Amos transcribed these stories from tapes into a written format and then translated them into English. Small booklets were published which included several of the WPA stories, again in Oneida and English. Mary Lemieux Prescott was commissioned to illustrate the stories in order to bring life to the characters portrayed within the tales. Maria and Amos continued their work and eventually published an Oneida dictionary. Maria continued on with the WPA stories and has produced A Collection of Oneida Stories.
Today, the WPA collection is again receiving attention. A tremendous effort has been made to index the stories in a more detailed format and to create collections based on the original thirteen interviewers. These stories hold a wealth of information and may provide the resources needed for a valuable genealogy research project for our Oneida students. We are fortunate to have this collection available in our community. In our everyday lives, it is difficult to find the time to share stories and engage in passing on our oral traditions. Although the Federal Writers Project was designed to assist people during the Great Depression, it may have been foresight on the part of the elders to leave behind such tremendous accounts of our history. Either way, we will continue to benefit from these rich stories.
In 1998, the second part of the collection, often referred to as the 167 notebooks was
found in a storage room at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Unlike the short stories in the first part of the collection, these notebooks contained lengthy accounts of life in Oneida and the lives of Oneida people throughout the country. The original notebooks are held in the collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, with copies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison’s Anthropology Department and the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department in Oneida, Wisconsin. The notebooks were written by twelve Oneida interviewers, some of whom took part in the collection of the original short stories. The first collection is oftentimes referred to as the writer’s project, while the second part of the collection is referred to as the ethnological project. The 167 notebooks were handwritten in spiral notebooks and comprise over 11,000 typewritten pages.
Interviews were again conducted with hundreds of Oneidas living in Wisconsin and cover
a wide range of topics, a few of which included churches, schools, jobs, families, gardens, wars, government and economics. Those conducting the interviews included Oscar Archiquette, Andrew Beechtree, Ida Blackhawk, Hyson Doxtator, Guy Elm, Amelia Jourdan, Stadler King, William Metoxen, Davd Skenandore, Sherman Skenandore and Alma Thomas.
One collector in particular referred to this project as an important endeavor in preserving information about the life and times of Oneidas. In an interview by Stadler King with Tom Elm in 1941, who was at the time 87 years of age, Tom had this to say about the WPA project:
They say the Government is throwing away that much money but I do not think the
government would do that, the government is too wise to do that. It knows that it
will make use of this some time and it knows that there has nothing ever been
written down as records about the Oneidas right from the beginning when the
Oneidas first came here from New York. It also knows that now is the only time
left that it could ever get information about Oneidas because we old fellows are
passing away and it will not be long when those of my age will all have passed
away and the younger ones that will take our place do not know any thing of those
older days. If they waited twenty years or so they would not have been able to
find any one that knows and be interested in telling of these life of Indians.
It is in the spirit of this effort that these stories have been revitalized, with the intention that those who understand the past is connected to the present, and with that understanding, there is a foundation and premise upon which the Oneida people will endure into the future. It is also the intention of this body of work, that unless we understand where we have come from and the efforts that have been made by those who have gone on before us, we will not understand the responsibilities we have to our future generations.
SOURCES: Adams & Goldbard 1986, 1995
Hauptman, Laurence M. 1981. The Iroquois and the New Deal. Pgs. 164-176.
Hinton, Maria. 1998. Personal Interview.
The 13 CD set sells for $150 plus $4.95 shipping and handling.
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