Revolutionary retelling of the founding

American Revolution Museum
The story of how the Oneida Indian Nation allied with the colonists against the British is told at the Museum of the American Revolution.

In recent years, our country has made great strides in honoring the uniquely diverse and multicultural roots of this exceptional society. Yet, for all that progress, history has remained one of the last arenas harboring an inaccurate picture of America.

All too often, the retelling of history promotes a monochromatic portrait promoting the courageous leadership of icons like George Washington, but painfully excluding the people of color who also played an instrumental role in this nation’s founding.

This month, though, that will finally begin to change with the opening of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Historian and author David McCullough shares a moment with fellow speaker Ray Halbritter at the museum opening on April 19.

 

By paying homage to the rich historical account of the integral role that the Oneida Indian Nation played as America’s first ally during the American Revolution, the historic bonds between Native Americans and America’s founding fathers will be forever preserved.

In essence, the opening of the museum is rescuing the history of this country’s birth — and Native Americans’ role in it. The fundamental contribution that our ancestors made in the formation of this great country will no longer be overlooked, ignored, or forgotten. Instead, the stories of our history will be told and retold for generations to come.

The significance of honoring indigenous people’s formative role in the establishment of the United States of America is particularly relevant in today’s politically acrimonious climate. After all, there has always been a direct line between bigotry and historical revisionism, distortion, and omission. Indeed, Native Americans’ heritage has often been distorted or altogether omitted in ways that are both factually inaccurate and deeply destructive.

In an ever-more diverse country, it is more critical than ever for future generations to learn and appreciate their multicultural roots and history.

Making sure we preserve that multicultural story is not a radical or dangerous idea — more than two centuries after the Oneidas fought side by side with Gen. Washington, our ancestors deserve their place in our collective memory about this country’s founding. While their bodies died for our future, we now ensure that their memories will not.

Centuries before professional sports teams tried to turn Native Americans into mascots and cartoons, my ancestors were forming a pivotal coalition with those fighting British tyranny. They were providing life-and-death support to the founders, who had almost no other allies coming to the aid of the Revolution.

One of the lifelike figures at the museum that help tell the story of the Oneida Nation during the Revolution.

Before the French helped the effort against the British, it was the Oneida people who became Washington’s first allies — and at great sacrifice to our people.

It was the Oneidas who took up arms in support of their colonial neighbors early on at the Battle of Oriskany — considered by many historians to be the bloodiest battle of the Revolution. Although that battle was more or less a draw, it cemented the longstanding friendship between the Oneidas and the colonies, and it made the Oneidas the very first allies of the United States.

It comes as quite a surprise that even today, many Americans still sadly have no knowledge of Native Americans’ role in the Revolution, because their efforts are often still omitted from the historical record. Such omissions, however, only underscore the significance of this new museum — and the moral imperative of its mission.

Now,  Americans have a chance to learn the rich and compelling story of how our people reached across cultural lines and worked together with the founders in a unified fight for freedom.

This museum makes sure that we are not succumbing to reductionism and not oversimplifying the beginnings of America. Instead, it guarantees that the details are preserved and that all the stories of sacrifice are passed on to future generations.

Preserving and teaching the true founding story of America is not an exercise in self-congratulation. On the contrary, these efforts ensure that the historical record of our exceptionally diverse nation accurately reflects the diversity of our foundational story. The museum’s mission also represents another meaningful way to safeguard the longevity of the American Revolution’s core ideals. Two centuries after the war, those notions of liberty, equality, and democracy remain as revolutionary as ever — and an inspiration for the world.

When my ancestors joined with the colonists, they were standing in solidarity for those indisputable ideals, just as our country still stands in defense of those ideals today.

Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation in Upstate New York, is a board member of the Museum of the American Revolution. OneidaNationNews@Oneida-Nation.org.