National Museum of the American Indian

New Sound-and-Light Installation Brings to Life the Oneida Nation's Aid to the American Revolution

Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative and CEO of Oneida Indian Nation Enterprises, at the dedication of the new interpretive sound, light, and imagery around the sculpture “Allies in War, Partners in Peace.” (Katherine Fogden [Mohawk], National Museum of the American Indian)
Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative and CEO of Oneida Indian Nation Enterprises, at the dedication of the new interpretive sound, light, and imagery around the sculpture “Allies in War, Partners in Peace.” (Katherine Fogden [Mohawk], National Museum of the American Indian)

If you've ever toured the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., you probably remember a sculpture, reaching nearly 20 feet to the ceiling of its fourth floor alcove. It has served as a popular place for visitors to pause between exhibitions, meet up with other members of their group, or pose for snapshots. The larger-than-life statue, a 2,200-pound bronze tableau titled Allies in War, Partners in Peace, is a gift from the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. Originally presented to the museum in 2004, it commemorates the aid the Oneida people gave to George Washington and his struggling Continental Army during the early days of the American Revolution. Now a new gift from the Oneida Nation brings the statue and the history it represents to vibrant life.

The work of Utah-based sculptor Edward Hlavka, Allies in War, Partners in Peace shows three figures from the United States' early history—General George Washington, an Oneida woman named Polly Cooper, and the Oneida diplomat Oskanondonha, or Skenandoah. They stand under a towering white pine tree, emblem of the Great Law of Peace uniting the nations of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. The Peacemaker who forged the confederacy buried weapons of war beneath the roots of a white pine, and they are visible in the sculpture. Intricate details of Oneida culture and history abound in the assemblage, including a turtle, wolf, and bear representing the three Oneida clans, and an eagle in the top branches of the pine poised to warn the nations of approaching perils. The tableau is so rich in symbolism that the art critic Gerald McMaster (Siksika First Nation), then deputy assistant director of the museum, said at the sculpture’s original unveiling, “We’ll have to ensure that an interactive display is nearby to point out these many, many details.”

Now the sculpture and its setting have been enhanced with that interpretive surround. New narration tells the story of Polly Cooper, who was one of a group of Oneida people who walked 400 miles from their central New York home to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to bring vital supplies to the soldiers of Washington’s Continental Army. Cooper remained at Valley Forge during the hard winter of 1777–78 to aid the troops. The display also explains the central role of Oskanondonha. The keeper of the wampum and its diplomatic record, Oskanondonha was instrumental in bringing the Oneidas to the side of the colonials during the Revolution. A wampum belt appears in the statue in the hands of George Washington.

“We wanted a statue that would tell the story of how the Oneidas embraced the colonists’ cause of freedom, fighting beside their colonial friends and aiding them in their time of need,” says Keller George, Wolf Clan representative to the Oneida Nation’s Council and a member of the museum’s National Council.

The new surround, however, does more than simply tell this story. Imagine the statue glowing in soft light as a voice fills the space, speaking in the Oneida language: “Let us come together in one mind and spirit as one we give thanks for all that surrounds us.” Warm hues resolve into video images of people dancing around a council fire with smoke curling skyward to form a dreamlike illustration of the storyteller’s words. Stylized views of the earth, sky, and water—the natural landscape known by the Oneida people—are projected onto the curved walls of the space, then scenes of the Oneida and Americans side-by-side fighting the British, then visions of hope for the future. Lights illuminate the people and symbols represented in the statue.

“This enhanced interpretation provides an immersive experience for visitors to understand this country’s rich history, so that there is a deeper understanding of the nuance, texture and depth of that history—an understanding that goes beyond the two-dimensional stories that too often oversimplify how this great country was founded,” Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative and Nation Enterprises CEO, explains. “This exhibit commemorates the friendship that was forged between the Oneida Nation and the United States during the Revolutionary War, as well as the incredible sacrifices made by our ancestors during the founding of our country.” The Oneida Nation's generosity continues to this day.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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