Oneida teens unearth layers of their history

They stand about 13 yards apart, clusters of teens on a hilltop, their sneakers sunk in dirt, their bodies obscured by chest-high weeds. Oneida Lake glimmers in the distance, a wide streak of blue beyond acres of farmland dotted with silver silos and dark red barns. From the hilltop, they can see for 15 miles; underground, they can travel through 300 years.

Wearing baseball caps and visors, listening to hip-hop on headphones and rap music on a boombox, these 10 native-American students are unearthing the remains of their ancestors' 17th-century village. The beads, animal bones, and pottery shards they find are "wicked" and "cool" - lingo that betrays both a firm entrenchment in their own culture and a shy fascination with one that came before.

The teens are part of Youth Work Learn, a program teaching job skills to young native Americans - and, for the crew assigned to Prof. Jordan Kerber's archaeology dig, helping them literally get in touch with their past.

"It opens up history to them," says Dr. Kerber, a professor of anthropology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. He has led these two-week summer digs since 1995 - first on land near Colgate, and since 1998, on land recently reacquired by the Oneida nation, 20 miles away.

Not exactly 'Indiana Jones'

So far, his crews have found mainly trade items - smoking pipes and beads made in Venice or Amsterdam that Europeans exchanged for beaver pelts or other goods; metal scraps shaped into pipes, beads, or weapons; and shell beads called wampum, manufactured along the East Coast and used as currency. Animal bones and teeth are plentiful, and one teen archaeologist found a corn kernel from the 1660s. Kerber's groups have also discovered two cassock buttons, part of a Jesuit ring, and endless flakes of chert (remnants from the carving of stone tools).

"You can't get a better history class than this," says Randy Phillips, manager of Youth Work Learn and a sixth-grade teacher in Oneida. "These kids are learning more than they'd ever learn in public school."

But they also have to shed some misconceptions. "For most of the kids," Mr. Phillips says, "their idea of archaeology is 'Indiana Jones.' We have to bring them down from that."

After a one-day orientation, Kerber puts them to work on small test pits, sifting dirt through waist-high swinging sieves and cataloging every find. In addition to field work, the crew spends two days cleaning artifacts in Colgate labs.

In 1998, when Kerber's initial grant from Colgate and the John Ben Snow Memorial Foundation expired, he asked the Oneida Nation if he could dig on their territory, with their teens, and with Oneida funds. "I thought it would make sense for Oneida students to work on [ancestral] sites, discovering objects they'd heard their grandfathers talk about," Kerber says. The Nation has footed most of the costs.

Through field work, the teens learn the painstaking process of excavation, honing their archaeological eyes.

'Everything's connected'

Dakota Bluewolf is something of a celebrity here. In his first two days on site, he discovers beads, pottery, chert flakes, charcoal, and deer and fish bone. Hunched over his screen, he announces each find with the nonchalance of a curator - "coal flakes," he'll say quietly, or, "it's a bead." On the second day, Dakota unearths a 17th-century musket ball. On the third, he finds a tiny coil of brass, the smallest one Kerber has seen.

D Edwards listens to hip-hop on her headphones as she rakes dirt through her sieve. She doesn't plan to pursue archaeology - she says she'll study engineering, computers, and herbs, while teaching the Oneida language and writing music - but says the dig will help her because "everything's connected, and there's a wicked lot of stuff I want to do."

Chris Eddy munches dandelions as he digs around tree roots, and asks when he can turn on the stereo. After a burst of discovery, the pace has slowed. "I thought it would be like, dig, no problems, find stuff," Chris says. "But I thought wrong."

Kerber and his assistants say that frustration is inevitable, and insist that nondiscovery is an integral part of archaeology. "We come from a society where everything moves at the speed of light," says Jason Flay, one of Kerber's assistants and a freshman at the University of Kansas. "But in screen after screen, you may find nothing. Patience is the greatest challenge."

D and her partner, M.J. Schenandoah, discover rose quartz, a small stone tool, and part of a 17th-century Dutch pipe. But more than the artifacts, D loves roaming the site. "What I really love is the look of it," she says, gesturing with her trowel. "If I find a lot of chert, I think of somebody sitting here making a tool, and I imagine kids running up the field."

While D sifts, M.J. kneels on the ground and talks of her plans to attend Yale Law School and defend native Americans. "I definitely feel more connected," M.J. says. "I feel [my ancestors'] presence all around me, like they're looking down."

That sensation hasn't always brought M.J. peace; she's ambivalent about unearthing a settlement after 300 years. "When I first came, I really felt it wasn't the right thing to do," she says.

But Phillips says that once Oneidas realize no one is digging up skeletons, few adults object.

Human bones untouched

Collaboration was possible partly because Kerber promised that if he found human bones, the dig would stop. "There aren't many nations in the US where archaeologists work voluntarily with native Americans," he says. "That position [on skeletal remains] led to a relationship of mutual trust."

Kerber's teams turn over all artifacts to the Oneida Nation, to be stored at the Shako:wi Cultural Center. Since 1995, they've found over 7,000 items.

Sheri Beglen, D's mother and an assistant language instructor for the Oneida Nation Education Department, says she's glad "that our own people can dig things up. Normally when you think of archaeology, you think of non-native people digging up our past."

The teens' ancestral connection is central to the program's success. Rood suggests that many Oneidas find their people's involvement reassuring, and Phillips admits he "can't see [the dig] happening without having the Nation involved."

Birdy Burdick, program coordinator for the Shako:wi Cultural Center, says that interest in Oneida culture has undergone a renaissance. "When I was growing up," she says, "my relatives were trained to fade into the woodwork. You weren't proud of your culture - it was just there."

But as Oneida income has soared in the last decade, with the construction of the gargantuan Turning Stone Casino Resort and a new chain of gas stations and convenience stores, education and housing programs have drawn Oneidas back to central New York - and awakened curiosity about a history many had left behind.

The dig whets that cultural appetite. Ms. Beglen, who has shared with her two daughters native traditions like making maple syrup from tree sap and planting a "Three Sisters" garden of corn, beans, and squash, anticipates D's curiosity "opening the door for me to talk about something cultural."

Practical lessons, paychecks

That night in the kitchen, standing beneath native American baskets that fill the room with a smell of bark and reeds, D fingers the beadwork on her mother's collection of barrettes. She says she'd like to learn about different varieties of corn. Beglen smiles. "That would be a cool little project," D says.

Paula Eddy, Chris's mother, says the dig has brought her new knowledge, too. "I wasn't taught a lot about [Oneida] history," she says, "so it's exciting for me to hear about." The manager of Multigame Machines at Turning Stone, she also sees the dig's practical side - lessons in work ethics and pay from Youth Work Learn.

It's that fusion of skills for the future and a dawning awareness of the past that keeps the teens focused as they sift a settlement through sieves. "With every object that's found," Mr. Flay says, "they flock to it, their eyes light up. Just the look on their faces - that, I believe, is the basis of the program."


Once, a 'noisy, lively place'

Ancient Oneidas left no written records, so archaeologists rely on artifacts to tell their story, supplemented by accounts of European traders and missionaries. In their two weeks at this 17th-century settlement site, 10 Oneida teens unearth tiny fragments of the past - shards that help bring a village to life, after three centuries underground.

Anthony Wonderley, Oneida Nation historian, describes one ancestral village that migrated along a hilltop ridge, moving every 10 to 20 years as resources dwindled. Clans lived in bark "long houses" the length of a football field, often surrounded by log palisades for defense. With panoramic views, Oneidas could easily see smoke signals and get early notice of visitors - or enemies.

Like all Iroquois groups, the Oneidas are a matrilineal society, and women at the site controlled farming and distributed crops. From the hilltop, they made one-mile treks to the valley for fish and fresh water, and 10-mile trips to Oneida Lake.

Dr. Wonderley says that 17th-century Oneida men were known throughout the eastern US as "people on the go," traveling from New England to the Great Lakes, and from South Carolina to northern Canada. "It was guys doing guy stuff," he says. "Trading, hunting, traveling in war parties, seeking beaver pelts."

Wonderley speculates that the hilltop village of 100 to 200 people - well fed, densely settled, and fond of long, bombastic speeches - "must have been an incredible, noisy, lively place."

But it wasn't all oratory and celebration. In the first decades of European contact, native-American populations were decimated by Old World diseases, with a mortality rate of from 55 to 99 percent. Epidemics hit the Oneidas from 1630 to 1690, so occupants of the site were likely fighting for survival.

"They lived in a world of violent crisis," says Wonderley. "One challenge native people faced was how to survive such a thing."

It's a story that continues to unfold, as teenage crews dig for details in the dirt.

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