One day in 1997 a department secretary came into my office with a carton filled with five large, old-fashioned ledger boxes and asked me what to do with them. When he told me they contained the correspondence of Haviland Scudder Mekeel, I told him to leave them with me. Mekeel had been a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Wisconsin (UW) from 1940 until he suddenly died in 1947 and the contents of his office had been left with the department after his death. As I made a preliminary sortie through these letters from 1940-1946, I came across one from Floyd Lounsbury. As I finished it my colleague, Jim Stoltman, an archeologist, walked by my office. “Jim, did you know that Floyd Lounsbury worked on Oneida in Wisconsin?” “No, but there is a carton in the storeroom that has ‘Oneida’ written on it,” he answered. (The department’s archeologists had done an inventory of the contents of the vast basement storeroom not long before.) I thought I would go look for it—and I then forgot about it.

A year later Harold (Hal) Conklin called with a request. He was writing an obituary for Floyd Lounsbury, and he wondered if I could find out something about his teacher, friend, and colleague’s undergraduate record at UW. This time I went right to the basement and found the carton labeled “Oneida.” In it were 165 stenographers notebooks, a survey of the work history of 27 men, hand-drawn maps showing houses and other cultural features, and transcriptions of newspaper articles involving Wisconsin Oneida Indians. Some of the notebooks were in the Oneida language but most were in English. I called Hal Conklin who was puzzled. “Those sound like the notebooks from the Oneida Language Project of 1938-40 but those are all at the APS [American Philosophical Society].” He suggested that I contact the linguist Cliff Abbott, one-time student of Lounsbury and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who has long worked with the Oneidas on their language. As soon as he could, Cliff came to Madison, and we went through these together and realized what we had.

In 1937 the linguistic anthropologist Morris Swadesh, then at UW, wrote to Franz Boas for advice. The administration wanted him to teach one semester and to work on a Wisconsin Indian language the second. Boas suggested the Oneida language, and finding the elders enthusiastic about the prospect, Swadesh took advantage of the funding for research through the WPA (Works Progress Administration) to get a grant that would employ literate bilingual Oneidas to collect texts and translate them. Swadesh was not retained by the university the next year, but he chose an undergraduate, Floyd Lounsbury, to train the workers to transcribe their unwritten language and to oversee the work. It  was completed in 18 months, after which Lounsbury went off to do research on Cherokee in Oklahoma. 

The dozen or so Oneida men and women who worked on the project wrote some of the texts themselves and recorded short accounts by many of their relatives, friends, and neighbors. Then they translated these text into English. The results of the “Oneida Language Project” have been utilized through the years by linguists (including Lounsbury) and used for reference and language learning by members of the Oneida tribe throughout the decades.[1]

After the linguistic project ended, Mekeel realized that there was still WPA money available, the Oneidas still needed work, and there was much more to be learned from the Oneidas. The department applied for an extension for another 18 months and converted the project from linguistics to ethnography, folklore, and history, with English as the first language where possible. A first year graduate student from the University of Chicago, Harry Basehart, was hired to be the supervisor of the project. They wrote until March 1942 when the money gave out and Basehart was drafted into the army. Those notebooks were put into a carton, left with Mekeel, and when he suddenly died they were forgotten until I had the great good fortune to discover them. 

The notebooks contained accounts by more than 220 individuals, almost equal numbers of women and men, from the age of 30 to 92, about their lives and the changes they had seen over the years. There were approximately 18,000 handwritten pages of autobiographical and “ethno-sociological” material telling about every aspect of life. There were several extended autobiographical accounts by project writers and many shorter accounts of working life, marriage and family life, religious life and belief, politics, boarding school experiences, recreation and sports, and more. But above all these accounts were brimming with wit and grit, pathos and humor, the portrait of a remarkable people who had endured much suffering without self-pity.

I contacted the university lawyer (who had briefly been a graduate student in anthropology) and he called the lawyer of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, Gerry Hill (once a graduate student in linguistics who Lounsbury had hoped would continue work on the Oneida language!). Hill came to Madison to inspect the new find, and he agreed that the tribe would accept photocopies of all the material and that the originals would be kept in the Wisconsin Historical Society. They now rest at the branch of the historical society on the campus of the UW-Green Bay, very near the Oneida reservation. [2]

I spent about two years reading through all the notebooks—everything in English–while Cliff Abbott worked with several Oneida language speakers on the accounts in Oneida. In 2005 I published Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas.[3] This work contains about one-tenth of the material from the collection, including those that I thought offered the best rounded and most interesting picture of Oneida life from about 1890 to 1942. The material is currently being used for various purposes by Oneidas themselves, just as they used the results from the earlier language project. A volume containing a number of accounts of religious life from the WPA papers has recently been published, and members of the Oneida Nation are currently considering further uses for this material.[4]

[1] Floyd G. Lounsbury, “Phonology of the Oneida Language” (University of Wisconsin, 1946); Floyd G. Lounsbury, Oneida Verb Morphology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953).

[2] I later discovered that there is considerable supplementary material relating to the project with the papers of Harry Basehart maintained at the Maxwell Museum of the University of New Mexico.

[3] Herbert S. Lewis, ed., Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005). 

[4] L. Gordon McLester III et al., eds., The Wisconsin Oneidas and the Episcopal Church: A Chain Linking Two Traditions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019).

Herbert S. Lewis: contributions / / Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison