Indigenous voices hold key to rediscovering culture

By: 
Ryan Winn
Columnist

According to Dr. Carol Cornelius, the Oneida word Ongwehoweh translates to “The Real People — Most Indigenous nations have a word that describes them as the original, the Indigenous people of the land.”

It’s those original people who inspired Cornelius to write her latest book, “A History of Wisconsin Indigenous Voices: Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown Interactions in the Removal Era.” She will discuss the text and the 1800s treaty era it covers during her Feb. 20 book event at the College of Menominee Nation’s Green Bay/Oneida campus.

For decades, Cornelius has been recognized as a revered Indigenous scholar. The Oneida/Stockbridge-Munsee educator earned her Ph.D. in 1992 and her resume includes helping to build the First Nations Studies undergraduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, serving as the administrator for the Oneida Nation’s cultural heritage Department, and teaching for both UW-Green Bay and CMN. Cornelius currently serves as the Oral Scholar in Residence at UW-Green Bay.

Cornelius has two previous books to her credit, having authored “Iroquois Corn In a Culture-Based Curriculum: Framework for Respectfully Teaching About Cultures” and having co-edited “Knowledge of the Elders: The Iroquois Condolence Cane Tradition.” Both texts offer readers a means to apply the wisdom embedded in Iroquois teachings in modern society.

Cornelius shared that her latest book began through her curiosity. “I wanted to know if documents existed that recorded the voices of our Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown ancestors when they were removing to what is now Wisconsin. I also wondered what the Menominee and Ho-Chunk ancestors said to us as we negotiated for land here.”

The research process was cumbersome. Cornelius stated, “For 10 years, I researched available original journals of Commissioners designated to record actual treaty negotiations, letters sent to and received by the Secretary of War and Lewis Cass, who was the Governor of Michigan Territory, as well as Senate and House minutes. Many of these documents have been preserved on microfilm and are handwritten, which took a long time to obtain and type up.”

The finished product is an invaluable account of the nation-to-nation negotiations that ultimately shaped the lands of the state that was to become known as Wisconsin. Just as valuable, the text gives voices to the Indigenous leaders who served as representatives of their nations.

Cornelius explained, “I would like readers to become knowledgeable and impressed with our ancestors’ diplomatic negotiating skills. They preserved Indigenous nations’ land for our people, but the voices of our ancestors have not been widely shared. That motivated me to write this book.”

This book is not the first time Cornelius has used her platform to share the words of Indigenous People. In 1983, she captured the words of Hilary Waukau, vice-chairman of the Menominee Tribal Legislature. In an article title “This Land is Our Land,” she recounted Waukau’s ire over a proposed Exxon mine: “The Indians are the best environmentalists in the world. We live off the land, with the land, and respect the land. It’s Mother Earth and it’s sacred to us.” That sacredness spans from the time Indigenous people were created through to perpetuity.

Cornelius wrote with a diverse audience in mind, imagining “Indigenous people, students, professors, and historians” benefiting from rediscovering what transpired through the words of those who lived it. The book has been well-received, with prior presentations resulting in questions that expose the shortcomings of an education that solely focuses on the voices of the dominant culture.

“A consistent theme I hear from readers, and those in my presentations, is the question of why they weren’t taught this before now.” Cornelius said. “Why haven’t the Indigenous voices been heard? Why doesn’t our education system include Indigenous voices?”

Cornelius’s Feb. 20 visit to CMN is a free event. It will be synchronously broadcasted to the school’s Keshena campus, allowing for interaction with the author through the WebEx system the school uses for its class meetings.

Come join Cornelius to learn about the Ongwehoweh who guided the Indigenous nations of Wisconsin through their treaty era and who still inspire their descendants to this day.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit www.menominee.edu for more information about the school.