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Wisconsin Book Festival 2006: Herbert S. Lewis speaks


Credit:Herbert S. Lewis
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The author of seminal volumes on Ethiopian history and culture and on Israel's Yemenites, UW-Madison emeritus anthropology Prof. Herbert S. Lewis is most recently the editor of Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas. Containing a substantial collection of oral histories given by Oneida Indians in the early 1940s as part of the Oneida Ethnological Project (conducted under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project), the volume is distilled from a boxful of stenographers' notebooks that had languished in various archives for more than half a century before they were rediscovered.

Lewis presents "Oneida Lives and Soul of a People: Voices and Footage from the WPA Federal Writers' Project" at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, in the Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio.


The Daily Page: What will your presentation at the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival entail?
Lewis: We will present the background to the project that produced these remarkable autobiographical narratives, followed by a brief slide show to give a sense of Oneida history and life in the early 20th century. Then we'll read from a few of these accounts, and members of the Oneida community will be there to join in the discussion.


Who should attend your presentation, and why should they be in your audience?
Anyone who is interested in people and the human spirit -- and in autobiography, American Indians, Wisconsin history, the Depression, and darn good stories well and engagingly told. (These are not my stories, of course. I only found them and made a selection of some of those I thought were most interesting, most representative, and give a well-rounded picture of Oneida life.) Certainly anyone interested in the life, times, and cultural and physical survival of Wisconsin's Indians should be very interested and may even be surprised by what they hear.


How many people were involved in gathering oral histories during the Oneida Ethnological Study, and over what period of time were they documented?
The numbers fluctuated over the year and a half of the project, from late 1940 to March 1942. About 16 men and women were employed at various times, but seven people did most of the interviewing and writing. The accounts they collected cover a period from about 1880 until the day the project ended.


How, when and where were these 18,000 hand-written pages rediscovered? Who came across them? And on a scale of 10, how sensational a find was this?
I was the extraordinarily lucky guy who rediscovered them. I picked up on some clues that led me to this completely unexpected find in the cavernous basement storeroom of the Department of Anthropology. The carton with 167 stenographers' notebooks had been moved from one building and storeroom to another over a half-century, until I opened it in 1998. Cliff Abbott, a linguist at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who works with a team of Oneidas on their language, came to Madison and we had a wonderful time discovering and sorting through these books, written in both English and in the Oneida language.

This collection is unique in its size, scope, and the way it was produced. There are first-person accounts from hundreds of individuals, collected and recorded by the Oneidas themselves, rather than by professional researchers or students from outside the community. Aside from autobiographical accounts, there are many pieces that present the observations and opinions of women and men of various ages about Oneida life and how it had changed over the decades.

Such a find won't get the headlines that are reserved for fossils in Africa or the discovery of a new work by Hemingway or Zora Neale Hurston, but it is important for those interested in knowing about Oneida and Wisconsin Indian life and history from the late 19th century until World War II.


Are there revelations in these testimonies that require rewriting, rethinking or reinterpretation of existing history texts? Or does the Oneida Ethnological Study elaborate upon, expand, enrich and support existing histories?
The Wisconsin Oneidas are fortunate to have had excellent historical studies commissioned, written, and published over the past two decades through the leadership of Laurence Hauptman, L. Gordon McLester, Jr., and Jack Campisi. The new material from the WPA project, and the new book, Oneida Lives, broadens, deepens, enriches, and supports this work with frank and shrewd firsthand testimonies.

These accounts will surprise readers who think in stereotyped terms about "Indians." The Oneidas immigrated to Wisconsin from New York State beginning in 1822, by which time most were Episcopalians and Methodists and had been forced to give up many aspects of their original (Iroquois) culture. They maintained their identity as Oneidas, Iroquois, and Indians, however, while working on farms and in factories, teaching, playing in dance bands and on football teams, and serving in the armed forces of the United States.


What condition were the original documents in, and what challenges did they present for editing?
These notebooks, and some hand-drawn maps and other miscellaneous materials, were in as perfect condition as they were when they were put in the box more than 60 years ago. Furthermore, the handwriting was so clear and the quality of the writing so high that the only challenge was to decide what to include -- or what to exclude. Of course it was necessary to correct some spelling (but relatively little), and to divide some very long paragraphs into shorter ones, but that was about all.


What criteria were imposed to narrow these narratives from the more than 500 collected by the Oneida Ethnological Study to the 65 included in Oneida Lives?
It was very difficult to choose among them, but some stood out for the inherent interest of the activities and events, the liveliness of the narrative, the poignancy and frankness of the tale. In addition, we attempted to gain as wide coverage as possible of the aspects of life: economic, family, religious, recreational, educational, etc.


Who is now in possession of the original collection of more than 500 testimonies? Will they be digitized or transcribed for further study?
There are several complete sets of photocopies of the collection, in the possession of the Oneida Nation and in the American Indian Studies Program at the UW-Madison. The originals are maintained by the archivists at the Wisconsin Historical Society and are currently located near the Oneida Reservation at the Area Research Center on the campus of the UW-Green Bay.


How many other Federal Writers' Project initiatives might be languishing somewhere, awaiting rediscovery?
I guess there could be a bunch, judging from this and from other recent finds, such as the discovery, a few years ago, of new material collected in the South by Zora Neale Hurston.


Where and when do you prefer to write?
Whenever I can -- at home in a room liberated from my son, who is now in NY writing his own screenplays and books.


What is the subject of your next book?
I hope to publish a collection of previously published but widely scattered articles about different aspects of the history and culture of the Oromo, a very large and very important people of Ethiopia. After that I would like to do a second volume using the Oneida materials, but one that will give a synthetic picture of Oneida life and history rather than focus on individual autobiographies. Or the next book might be one on the nature, history, and current state of American anthropology.


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