The Oneidas were located between the Mohawks and the Onondagas, between Lake Ontario and the upper Susquehanna River, especially around Oneida Creek. There were perhaps 15,000–20,000 members of the Iroquois League around 1500, and roughly 1,000 Oneidas in the midseventeenth century. The Oneidas spoke a northern Iroquois dialect.
The Oneidas recognized Orenda as the supreme creator. Other animate and inanimate objects and natural forces were also considered of a spiritual nature. They held important festivals to celebrate maple sap and strawberries as well as corn planting, ripening (Green Corn ceremony), and harvest. The eight-day new year's festival may have been the most important of all. Held in the midwinter, it was a time to give thanks, to forget past wrongs, and to kindle new fires, with much attention paid to new and old dreams. Medicine groups such as the False Face Society, which wore carved wooden masks, and the Medicine, Dark Dance, and Death Feast Societies (the last two controlled by women) also conducted ceremonies, since most illness was thought to be of supernatural origin. In the early nineteenth century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake.
The Iroquois League comprised fifty hereditary chiefs, or sachems, from the constituent tribes. Each position was named for the original holder and had specific responsibilities. Sachems were men, except when a woman acted as regent, but they were appointed by women. The Oneidas sent nine sachems to meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies. Their symbol at this gathering was the great tree.
Locally, the village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders. Matters before the local councils were handled according to a definite protocol based on the clan and division memberships of the chiefs. Village chiefs were chosen from groups as small as a single household. Women nominated and recalled clan chiefs. Tribal chiefs represented the village and the nation at the general council of the league. The entire system was hierarchical and intertwined, from the family up to the great council. Decisions at all levels were reached by consensus.
The Oneidas recognized a dual division, each composed of probably three matrilineal, animal-named clans. The clans in turn were composed of matrilineal lineages. Each owned a set number of personal names, some of which were linked with particular activities and responsibilities.
Women enjoyed a high degree of prestige, being largely equated with the "three sisters" (corn, beans, and squash), and they were in charge of most village activities, including marriage. Personal health and luck were maintained by performing various individual rituals, including singing and dancing, learned in dreams. Shamans also used up to 200 or more plant medicines to cure illness.
Young men's mothers arranged marriages with a prospective bride's mother. Divorce was possible but not readily obtained because it was considered a discredit. The dead were buried in a sitting position, with food and tools for use on the way to the land of the dead. A ceremony was held after ten days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.
The main aboriginal village, Oneniote, had over sixty longhouses and was palisaded. The people built their villages near water and often on a hill after about 1300. Some Iroquois villages had up to 150 longhouses and 1,000 or more people. Villages were moved about twice in a generation, when fire-wood and soil were exhausted.
Iroquois Indians built elm-bark longhouses, fifty to 100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the twelfth century on. They held around two or three but as many as twenty families, related maternally (lineage segments), as well as their dogs. The people also built some single-family houses.
Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. Corn was the staple and used in soups, stews, breads, and puddings. It was stored in bark-lined cellars. Women also gathered a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, fruits, and mushrooms. Tobacco was grown for ceremonial and social smoking.
After the harvest, men and some women took to the woods for several months to hunt and dry meat. Men hunted large game and trapped smaller game, mostly for the fur. They also caught waterfowl and other birds, and they fished. The people grew peaches, pears, and apples in orchards from the eighteenth century on.
The Iroquois used porcupine quills and wampum belts as a record of events. Wampum was also used as a gift connoting sincerity and, later, as trade money. These shell disks, strung or woven into belts, were probably a postcontact technological innovation.
Oneidas obtained birchbark products from the Huron. They imported copper and shells and exported carved wooden and stone pipes as well as dried salmon. They also raised and traded ginseng with other tribes. Elm-bark canoes were roughly twenty-five feet long. The people were also great runners and preferred to travel on land. They used snowshoes in the winter.
Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore shirts and short breechclouts and tunics in cooler weather; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn husk slippers in the summer. Robes were made of light or heavy skins or pelts, depending on the season. These were often painted. Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively. Men often wore their hair in a roach; women wore theirs in a single braid doubled up and fastened with a thong.
Boys began developing war skills at a young age. Prestige and leadership were often gained through war, which was in many ways the most important activity. The title of Pine Tree Chief was a historical invention to honor especially brave warriors. Oneidas were known as particularly fierce fighters. In traditional warfare, large groups met face to face and fired a few arrows after a period of jeering, then engaged in another period of hand-to-hand combat using clubs and spears. Population losses were partially offset by the adoption of captives. Former enemies became Oneidas because they were brought in to fill specific roles in specific lineages; the clan mothers could order the death of anyone who did not do what was expected of him.
All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. War could be decided as a matter of policy or undertaken as a vendetta. Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether to fight. During war season, generally the fall, Iroquois war parties ranged up to 1,000 miles or more. Male prisoners were often forced to run the gauntlet: Those who made it through were adopted, but those who did not might be tortured by widows. Some captives were eaten.
The Iroquois began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1000 and 1150. Iroquois first met non-Natives in the sixteenth century. During these and subsequent years, the people became heavily involved in the fur trade. Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized the period. Although they were good at playing the European powers against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars and were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French.
In the late seventeenth century, battles with the French and allied Indian tribes as well as disease epidemics severely reduced the Oneidas' already small population. As much as two-thirds of the tribe members in those years were enemies, such as Hurons and Algonquins. Following the Tuscarora Wars in 1711–1713, people of that tribe began resettling on Oneida land. The Oneidas sponsored the Tuscarora tribe as the sixth member of the Iroquois Confederacy in the early 1720s. Some Oneidas began to drift into the Ohio Valley as early as the mideighteenth century. By that time, longhouse living had seriously declined, with houses of nuclear families taking their places.
The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the balance of power in the region. Despite the long-standing British alliance, some Indians joined anti-British rebellions as a defensive gesture. From 1767 on, evangelical missionaries provided a theoretical/religious basis for the new Pine Tree Chiefs/warriors, such as the Susquehannock Shenendoah, to oppose the traditional chiefs. The missionaries attacked traditional religion and politics, and in this were aided by the warriors, who saw a way to topple control by the clan mothers and traditional chiefs. The 1760s were also a time of famine, increased pressure from non-Natives for land, and growing alcohol abuse, all of which provided fertile ground for the missionaries and their new converts.
The confederacy split its allegiance in the Revolutionary War, with most Oneidas (and Tuscaroras), after a period of neutrality, siding with the patriots at the warriors' urging. This split resulted in the council fire's being extinguished for the first time in roughly 200 years. The Oneidas participated in American attacks on the Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca villages. The Iroquois suffered a defeat in 1779 that broke the power of the confederacy. The Oneidas ended the war a scattered people, alienated from their fellow Iroquois, with little food and their traditional social, political, and economic systems in ruins.
The Oneidas welcomed two more groups of Indians in the late eighteenth century. Stockbridge Indians arrived to build the community of New Stockbridge, New York, in 1785. Three years later, a group of Mohegans, Mahicans, Narragansetts, Pequots, Montauks, and other Algonquin Indians, as well as some Oneidas, formed the Brothertown Community near New Stockbridge.
Following the Revolutionary War, New York State and the new U.S. government guaranteed the territorial integrity of nearly 6 million acres of Oneida land. However, the Oneidas bowed to pressure and sold most of their lands in New York, gradually relocating westward. Under the influence of an Episcopal missionary and despite the objections of most Oneidas, about half of the tribe settled around Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the 1820s and 1830s, on land they purchased from the Menominee tribe. Following the Treaty of Buffalo Creek (1838), which called for the removal of all Iroquois from New York to Kansas, other Oneidas moved to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, to the Thames River near London, Ontario, to the Onondaga Reservation near Syracuse, and to their original territory near Utica.
The Iroquois council officially split into two parts during that time. One branch was located at the new Six Nations Reserve and the other at Buffalo Creek. Gradually, the reservations as well as relations with the United States and Canada assumed more significance than intraconfederacy matters. In the 1840s, when the Buffalo Creek Reservation was sold, the fire there was rekindled at Onondaga.
In Wisconsin, most people practiced Christianity, with few elements of their traditional religion. Political leadership was based mainly on personal qualities and affiliations, although a hereditary council maintained considerable power. Most land had been allotted by 1908; as usual, the allotments were lost through tax default and foreclosure. At the same time, municipal governments began to replace the tribal structures. Although many people left the community permanently or seasonally to find work, Indian life remained centered on family, medicine societies, church, and several associations.
The Oneida community in Ontario reestablished the traditional tribal council shortly after they arrived in 1839 (although most power was exercised by a general assembly). Clan leaders also represented the tribe at the Council held at the Six Nations Reserve. Kinship ties and traditional medicine societies remained strong. Most people farmed throughout the nineteenth century, with perhaps seasonal lumbering in the winter. In the twentieth century, the economic focus shifted to wage labor in white communities. This development led to increased factionalism and the eventual creation of a parallel tribal council supported by adherents of the Longhouse religion. After a third faction arose in the 1930s, the Canadian government unilaterally mandated an elective system. With other members of the confederacy, the Oneidas have tried to resist governmental intrusions on their sovereignty.
In Wisconsin, most Oneidas are either Episcopalians or Methodists, although some follow the Longhouse religion. Few people speak Oneida, although the tribal school teaches classes in the Native language. Although most people are Christian, there are also many adherents of the Handsome Lake religion among the Ontario Oneida community. Descent is patrilineal by Canadian law, and clan identification has lost much of its significance.
In New York, leadership has been in dispute since at least the 1950s, when a newly organized elective system was more or less successfully challenged by traditionalists. Sachems and clan mothers now hold the leadership positions. Most members are Christians, although many are also members of the Longhouse religion. The nation operates a health center, youth and elderly programs, and a housing development. Some New York Oneidas still speak the language.
The political structure of the Iroquois League continues to be a source of controversy for many Iroquois (Haudenosaunee). Some recognize two seats—at Onondaga and Six Nations—whereas others consider the government at Six Nations a reflection of or corollary to the traditional seat at Onondaga. Important issues concerning the confederacy in the later twentieth century include Indian burial sites, sovereignty, gambling casinos, and land claims. The Six Nations Reserve is still marked by the existence of progressive and traditional factions, with the former generally supporting the elected band council and following the Christian faith and the latter supporting the confederacy and the Longhouse religion.
Traditional Iroquois Indians also celebrate at least ten traditional or quasi traditional ceremonies, including the Midwinter, Green Corn, and Strawberry. Iroquois still observe condolence ceremonies as one way to hold the League together after roughly 500 years of existence. Many Iroquois continue to see their relationship with the Canadian and U.S. governments as one between independent nations and allies, as opposed to one marked by paternalism and dependence.