03 August 2006

From the Grimms to the Oneidas

Lately I've been reading a scholarly study of Oneida storytelling by historian Anthony Wonderley. It examines the largely unpublished stories collected in the early 20th century by Hope Emily Allen from women who helped maintain the Oneida Community Mansion House, particularly Lydia Doxtater and Anna Johnson.

At the time, the Oneida community in central New York was in difficult legal disputes over whether they still existed as a nation, or whether their lifestyle had become so Europeanized and their traditions so attenuated that they no longer deserved court recognition as a collective entity. This played out in court battles over land, naturally: were mortgages and deeds signed by individual Oneida people valid, or did those individuals not have the power to sell or mortgage tribal land? (On top of that dispute is one that has reappeared more recently, and more significantly: were any agreements between the Oneidas and other Iroquois nations and the state of New York valid after the adoption of the US Constitution? And, given that the law clearly says no, what is the remedy for the people whose ancestors lost land rights as a result of those invalid agreements?)

Some of the stories that Allen collected from her neighbors in 1916-1926, Wonderley shows, are versions of European wonder tales documented decades before by the brothers Grimm. No such tales are previously documented from Iroquois or related sources. Some involve technology that's not only Old World, but modern. For instance, there's one that strikes me as a summary of the more outlandish version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, balloon and all.

However, Wonderley also points out how the Oneida storytellers' versions of these tales incorporate details from their own traditions: red osier swtiches, for instance, and the balloonist's sharpshooter companion using a bow and arrow instead of a musket (as in the Terry Gilliam movie and other versions of Munchausen). Thus, the stories document both the influence of the surrounding Europe-based culture on the Oneidas and the survival of their own cultural traditions.

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