Doug George-Kanentiio: Town repays Oneida Nation with racism

The seal of the village of Whitesboro, New York

The Cartoonish Whiteboro, NY Seal: An Indignity To All
By Doug George-Kanentiio

The town seal for Whitesboro has drawn ridicule from across the nation and has proven to be a justified humiliation for the residents and for Oneida County, New York.

The seal is a bad cartoon adopted in the 20th century and depicts a black haired, unkempt white man with his hands close to the throat of a Native man. He has his hands on the shoulder of his opponent and is about to be thrown to the ground. The Native man has a scalplock haircut with a strange white and green feather with red stripes unlike any indigenous bird species anywhere.

Behind the pair are lime green hills stripped of any trees, they are on a field with small sprouts of grass. The white man has one of his legs awkwardly between the legs of the Native person. The drawing is cartoonish and was done without any skill or cultural familiarity. The symbolism is also crude-the Native man is being hurled earthwards, in defeat, about to the slammed and shamed, perhaps even choked to death. It is an emphatic assertion of the superiority of the settlers in an era when the media was about to turn its pervasive myth making powers against Natives full force.

The town of 3,800 was founded when a white man named Hugh White was given land by the Oneidas as an act of generosity. It did not mean the Oneidas ceded anything but simply wanted to help a guy out during hard times. The Oneidas would pay dearly for their charity as they followed the Mohawks in having almost all of their lands stolen by New York State within a generation of the American Revolution. So much for the Americans "first allies."

By the beginning of the 20th century many Americans believed that Natives were on the road to extinction. The pre-contact population of North American was well over 10 millions and perhaps as high as 15,000,000. There were hundreds of distinct indigenous societies, nations and confederacies living in towns and villages, cultivating millions of acres of land.

By the beginning of the 20th century the Native population was down to less than 300,000, the majority living in poverty on resource poor lands primarily west of the Mississippi. In New York State the predominant aboriginal group were the Iroquois, united in a great confederacy who held the balance of power in the northeast for generations until the American Revolution when our lands were stolen, our culture undermined and many of our people forced from their homes to live as refugees in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada.

Myths were created to justify the theft of our lands. These lies and distortions became entrenched in western literature and became pillars of the American education system. When movies came about the rate of lie making grew until very little of the truth remained. It was seemingly natural for those who made these images to recognize that the Natives had been beaten and deserved little consideration. Ultimate truth was defined by the winners.

But the Iroquois did not fade away. While only 6,000 were in the state in 1900 there was a gradual rebound which accelerated as the century grew. The indigenous Oneidas, in whose territory Whitesboro is located, were reduced to a handful in the region. There were the Oneidas of Marble Hill south of Sherrill and a few others at the Onondaga reservation near Syracuse.

Against the odds these Oneidas decided to challenge history and the prevalent laws by claiming they had a valid claim to their 3,500,000 acres of aboriginal territory because of treaties with the US. They claimed that New York knowingly acted to undermine federal law and take Native lands.

Led by Mary Cornelius Winder they began a struggle which they knew might take decades but despite vigorous opposition by New York State they won a series of small legal victories beginning with the recognition that, of all of their former lands, 32 acres south of Oneida was exempt from state law and was truly Native land.

Along with this came changes, however slowly, in the popular perception of Natives.

By the civil rights era the Iroquois felt they were finally able to gain an international voice which was used to challenge racist myths. Stereotypes began to fade as a new appreciation for Native history took shape. Indigenous people emerged from the shadows as human beings. These changes were beneficial for Americans as a nation but there were small pockets of resistance by those who were defensive in their shame.

Whitesboro is one of those remaining enclaves but not beyond rational thinking-at least one hopes.

There is really no good reason to hold on to the seal as it now is. There can be no pride in this silliness, no honor to be extracted from its inference. No Native person can be anything but irritated by the seal and it does harm to the efforts by teachers to instruct their students in the truth of our common history. Now is there anyone who can argue that we can't do better?

And yes, we can. The Town of Whiteboro officials faced national ridicule. The comic and host of CBS's Late Show Stephen Colbert devoted an opening monologue to condemning the seal which in turn led to others poking fun at the town. In response the officials agreed to work with the local Oneidas to change the motto with a final decision pending. In doing so, the officials bypassed a non-binding resolution passed at a public meeting by a 3-1 vote to retain the offensive image.

Yes, change is possible even in the most conservative of districts. If an appeal to common sense does not work maybe national humiliation and a verbal spanking is what it takes.

Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk currently residing on Oneida Territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

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