Meet Native America: Sheri Doxtator, Chief, Oneida Nation of the Thames
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Sheri Doxtator, elected chief for the Oneida Nation of the Thames. The name Oneida comes from the original Onyota’a:ka, which means People of the Standing Stone. Oneida is a member of the Six Nations, also known as the Iroquois.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
Teyotawunli (pronounced day yo dah wun lee), it means Travelling Woman. A'no:wál niwaki’taló:tʌ̲ is how to say, "I am of the Turtle Clan."
Where is your nation located?
Our physical location is Southwold, Ontario, Canada, but we refer to our territory as Oneida Settlement. We are located next to the Thames River, and this is why we refer to ourselves in English as the Oneida Nation of the Thames.
Where were the Oneida people originally from?
What is now known as New York State, in the U.S.A.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
May I quote from an article by Eileen M. Antone, an Oneida and member of the faculty at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education?
Oneida Nation of the Thames holds a unique position among the First Nation communities in Canada in that we purchased our lands and arrived as settlers from New York State. Our original homelands are in the Madison County area of New York and well beyond. However, following the American Revolution, the Governor of N.Y. saw fit to reward returning American soldiers with parcels of Oneida lands.
Documented from living memory of stories handed down (orature), money was thrown at the feet of Oneidas by the N.Y. officials, telling them that this was payment for their lands and they should leave the state. Arrangements were quickly made between Oneida Castle and the Land Commission of Upper Canada to purchase the land in Delaware Township along the banks of the Thames where we now reside in collective ownership.
Two-hundred-forty men, women, and children arrived at the settlement in 1840, and each paid $42 to settle here. The settlement later became Reserve No. 41, after the Oneidas were unable to pay the huge debt of back taxes, most of which had been accumulated by the previous owners.
You can read more in Prof. Antone's History of the Oneida of the Thames Move to Canada. An excerpt from the book describing the earlier history of the Oneida is available online courtesy of the Oneida Language and Cultural Centre.
It should also be noted that Oneidas remained in New York and also settled in Wisconsin. Our Oneida sisters and brothers are located all over Turtle Island. However, we have tribal lands in Ontario, Canada, and in New York and Wisconsin, in the United States.
Graphic design by Chancey Teholatanek Chrisjohn based on the Hiawatha Belt, a symbol of the agreement among the five original Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) nations and their promise to live in unity and stand by one another in times of trouble. © Chancey Teholatanek Chrisjohn, used with permission.
How is your government set up?
We currently have elected governance and traditional governance systems. As we move into building our nation stronger, we hope that our systems will continue on a path of unity. As the elected chief of Oneida Nation of the Thames, I hold my seat with pride and honor to represent Onyota’a:ka with twelve elected councillors. They are listed by our clan system as follows:
Ohkwa:lí̲ (Bear Clan): Carolyn J. Doxtator, Charity J. Doxtator, Sue Doxtator, Ransom Doxtator, Zelda Elijah, Olive Elm, Randall Phillips
A'no:wál (Turtle Clan): Sheri Doxtator
Othahyu:ní̲ (Wolf Clan): Joel Abram, Clinton Cornelius, Gloria Doxtator, H. Grant Doxtator, Harry Doxtator
Our newly elected council—which took office as of July 9, 2014—is excited to nurture our relationship with the traditional governance systems in our territory. As Onyota’a:ka we all believe that we have a responsibility to our future generations and that our ancestors watch over us. The elected leaders convene our council meetings using the traditional medicines that the Creator has provided for us, offer an opening and closing prayer in the Onyota’a:ka language, and sit according to clans.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
We currently follow the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada regulations with regards to our elections. This means that elections occur every two years.
How often does the council meet?
We have established regular meetings to be four times a month, but we realize that special meetings may need to be called from time to time. The council relies on a portfolio system that may see regular monthly meeting of various committees dealing with a large variety of issues concerning our nation.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
I feel that I am honored to have been chosen to take over the “family business.” My father, Harry Doxtator, and grandfather Manson Ireland also held elected office as both chiefs and councillors. It is with great love and respect to my mother, Linda, and my grandmothers Christine and Elsie that these men and I have been able to hold these titles.
I have been involved with leadership roles and youth councils at the Assembly of First Nations and the National Association of Friendship Centres and in almost every educational institution I have attended since I started school at the age of four. My work experience with a variety of Indigenous organizations on Turtle Island at local, regional, national, and international levels has also prepared me for my current role as elected chief.
What responsibilities do you have as a chief?
The elected chief is accountable to all the people of the Oneida Nation of the Thames. As the top spokesperson for our people, I take my direction from them and by extension the elected council. Our decision-making process is one of consensus. Our hope is to move forward in the spirit of unity and build the strength of our nation. As the elected leadership, we develop key priorities to focus on.
Due to the short length of term in office, leadership has been limited on what can be accomplished. Through a review of our election code and improved engagement with our people, we hope to reduce the constant changes of leadership and goals that seem to come every two years.
Long-term planning is important for all our success. Specifically, elected leadership works with various levels of government—municipal, provincial, and federal—to advocate for Indigenous issues, concerns, and legislation. We provide a number of services for our people, such as housing, education, health, child welfare, and safety, to mention a few. As is true of many of the First Nations in Canada, we are very limited on funding, and this creates a sense of dependency on governments who control the purse strings. Thus, we are looking at increasing our own-source revenue streams, developing fundraising strategies, and creating social enterprises.
Our larger goals are expressed in our mission statement:
We the Oneida people will strive to strengthen and restore a better understanding of the Great Law, our spirituality, history, language, culture and traditions in order to retain our identity and values as Unkwehonwe people;
We the Oneida people recognize the need to create a safe, harmonious and self sufficient community that will provide a clean environment, healthy life choices and a sustainable economy for the benefit of all;
Together we the Oneida people will strive to govern and manage our own affairs with the courage to exercise our sovereignty and independence as we evolve into the future.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My parents and grandparents are the most important mentors and influences in my life. In everything I do, I always ask myself, “Would this make my grandma proud?”
My father has been and is still a leader of our community for over four decades. This position can be challenging at times, and he gained respect from our people, our councils, and other Indigenous leaders from around the world. He makes me proud, and I hope to be half the leader he is.
He did it with my mother by his side. She is a strong woman who taught me that strength is not measured by our physical being. Rather we build our strength from one another, and our love grows with each passing day.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
None that I know of.
Approximately how many members are in your nation?
The currently population for Oneida Nation of the Thames is almost 5900.
What are the criteria to become a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames?
We currently recognize our people through the clan system. If you are born into Bear, Turtle, or Wolf Clan, then you are Oneida. Through the federal system, the external government has created a numbering system to identify our people as Status Indians as recognized under the Indian Act. This is legislation that the government of Canada still adheres to maintain control over many First Nations in Canada.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
We only have 63 master speakers. They are fluent elders within our settlement. We encourage language use in our early years and elementary education system. We also have developed a relationship with a local university to have our language taught and accredited. As leadership, we are committed to language revitalization and are learning new words, phrases, and sentences every time we conduct a council meeting.
What economic enterprises does your nation own?
Our for-profit arm, Twataya’Takenhas, Incorporated (TTI; the full name is pronounced dwa dah ya dah giin haas), has made investments in mySmart Simulations (mSS) and D’Arcy Lance Incorporated (DLI). mSS is a software development company that focuses on e-learning for healthcare professionals. DLI is a local registered massage-therapy school that focuses on both human and equine massage.
What annual events does your nation sponsor?
Our nation supports local athletes in a variety of sports. This year we supported Oneida athletes in their various sports at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) held the week of July 20, 2014. We also support our young hockey players at the Little Native Hockey League (Little NHL) tournament held every year during our spring break in March. This Little NHL event sees children and youth—ages 3 to 18—from all over Ontario come together in a show of sportsmanship.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
We currently have a re-created Iroquoian village that is located five minutes from Oneida Settlement. It is called Skanahdoht, meaning, “A village stands again.” On the settlement we hope to see investment in a language and cultural center.
How does your nation deal with the United States and Canada as a sovereign nation?
Oneida Nation of the Thames is committed to nationhood with the Iroquois people. We assert our inherent rights as sovereign people by living along and crossing the U.S.–Canada border. Our people stand united as Iroquois, and we continue to live and work freely in North America. We also meet with elected officials of other Iroquois nations through the Iroquois Caucus. Collectively we represent approximately 70,000 people.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your nation?
Our youth are leaders. I have learned a lot from listening to our youth. They are intelligent, well-spoken, and will be holding my seat as chief and seats as members of the council in the future. As a role model, I am an abstainer from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. I speak with a clear mind and in a good way. I believe that revitalizing our language will strengthen our nation. I will continue to be an ambassador of the Oneida Nation and represent our people to the best of my abilities. I will be quiet and listen to our people, when required, and will continue to “make decisions that would make my grandma proud”!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I thank the Creator every day for all creation and for the opportunity to represent my people. Yaw^ko—an Oneida word meaning, “Great big thanks!”
All photographs courtesy of Oneida Nation of the Thames, used with permission.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.