- E Pluribus Oneidum
During a recent trip to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., I examined up close the sculpture Allies in War, Partners in Peace, a photograph of which serves as the frontispiece to this new history of the Oneidas' role in the American Revolution. The statue is an imposing work, nineteen and a half feet tall, featuring three human figures standing beneath a tree. At the center is the Oneida woman known as Polly Cooper, who according to oral tradition, accompanied forty-seven Oneida warriors who visited Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. The men had come to serve as auxiliaries to the patriot army, but Cooper had a more peaceful mission. She brought corn to the hungry Continentals and showed them how to prepare the Iroquoian dietary staple corn soup. The other two figures stand behind Cooper. On her right, George Washington holds a wampum belt. On her left, the Oneida chief and patriot ally Skenandoah holds a peace pipe. Each human figure is complemented by an animal associated with Iroquoian clan totems. Cooper stands above a turtle. A bear sticks its head out between Washington and Cooper, and a wolf does the same between Cooper and Skenandoah.
Cooper, her hair dressed in long twin braids and topped with an odd-looking headband, seems to have walked off a box of Land O Lakes® butter. One of her hands is open and extended downward in a gesture of invitation; the other clutches a hefty, overflowing basket of corn. The Indian-maiden-as-earth-mother motif is accentuated by her starry-eyed gaze, her animal attendants, and the tree that towers above her. Washington and Skenandoah strike more masculine but also contrasting poses. Skenandoah stands tall but relaxed, his eyes fixed with gentle confidence directly ahead, the hint of a smile crossing his face. Washington is stiff as a board and frowning. His empty eyes stare off in the same direction as Polly Cooper's, but he does not seem nearly as pleased with what he sees.
While no doubt intended to inspire and enlighten, this sculpture left me feeling a bit queasy. The braids, corn, and animals all smacked of contemporary [End Page 344] Native American kitsch, and the message seemed to be yet another iteration of the Squanto and Pocahontas stories: selfless Native Americans rescue imperiled colonizers, so that said colonizers can survive to cheat and murder them at a later date. That is certainly one way to tell the story of the Oneida nation during the American Revolution. They fought on the side of the patriots (unlike most of their Iroquois brethren), and were repaid with dispossession and dispersal in the years that followed. The Polly Cooper story, however, renders the Oneidas' complex motives for allying with the patriots into a tart morality play. As in so many similar tales from American history, it pits generous and innocent Indians against villainous Europeans. No wonder George Washington has such a grim look on his face. He has seen this movie before and he knows how its ends. Even worse, this time he is playing the heavy.
Allies in War, Partners in Peace provides a fitting visual cue for the theme that drives this book. Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin, two distinguished military historians, have decided that "rather than trying to embellish the harsh realities" of the Oneidas' Revolutionary experience "with some sort of artificial theoretical analysis," they would instead commit themselves "to preparing a swift-moving narrative" (p. 405). Their title, Forgotten Allies, provides all the theory they need.
There are two ways to justify the claim that the Oneidas' alliance with the patriots was forgotten. First, the authors could prove that in the aftermath of the Revolution, the victorious Americans conveniently "forgot" that the Oneidas had allied with them, so that they could dispossess them with a clear conscience. Second, the authors could blame the historical profession for...