Shawano resident tells of Oneida culture through mother’s eyesBy:
Lee Pulaski [email protected]
Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski
Edi Cornelius-Grosskopf, center, signs a book while standing between Holly Zander and Dan Labby during a presentation she gave on “Traveling Home: Blessed by Spirit Songs” on Saturday at Beans and Books in Shawano. The author is working on providing a comprehensive look into Oneida history and culture with the book.
Shawano resident Edi Cornelius-Grosskopf was told stories by her mother about a journey to Indian boarding schools and the return back home to Wisconsin, and she never forgot them.
Cornelius-Grosskopf knew from the time that she was young that she wanted to put her mother’s history into some kind of book, but it took turning 60 to really motivate her to start the book.
“My father died when he was 61, and my brother died when he was 61,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said. “I thought, I’d better write this book before I turn 61 or I might not make it.”
That revelation came about seven years ago, but Cornelius-Grosskopf is still alive and kicking today, and her book “Traveling Home: Blessed by Spirit Songs,” is now a reality, sharing the tales of how Alice, her mother, dealt with hardships and overcame obstacles as an Oneida woman growing up in the early 1900s.
Alice was born in 1907, and at that time, all Native Americans were required to go to the boarding schools run by the U.S. government. Cornelius-Grosskopf said the children had to get rid of their possessions, abandon their tribal traditions and were stripped of the culture in order to be assimilated into American society.
“The Christians and the government had separate schools, but they would work together for these boarding schools,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said. “They would pull them away from their families specifically so they would assimilate into mainstream American society.”
She pointed out that African-Americans were allowed to keep their spiritual beliefs while integrating into society, but “assimilation” was what Native Americans endured as they were changed to reflect the beliefs of a predominantly white country.
“That’s a keyword that I think is important,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said.
Cornelius-Grosskopf said her grandmother managed to keep Alice out of the boarding school until 1918, but eventually had to send her away to the boarding school in Tomah to become a “good American citizen.”
Cornelius-Grosskopf’s book is written so middle school students and older can read and understand the material.
Besides putting her mother’s story into print, Cornelius-Grosskopf wanted to bring more attention to the Oneida culture and history. Even though there are 11 recognized Native American tribes in Wisconsin, and Act 31 requires the teaching of tribal history in the schools, there are not a lot of stories beyond traditional history books to draw on, she said.
“There’s very little known, and there’s not a lot of it in children’s books,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said. “I wanted to deal with subjects like abandonment and alcoholism and death and other things that aren’t necessarily cool, but in our culture, they’re part of life, so it’s natural.”
She also wanted to illustrate the importance of music in the Oneida culture.
“The Oneida spiritual hymns are very spirit-filled; they’re very biblical,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said.
The book also stresses the importance of religion in spirituality.
“I wanted people to know about Jesus,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said.
Alice lived to be 97 and passed away in 2004, which gave Cornelius-Grosskopf a lot of life information to draw on. Cornelius-Grosskopf kept a journal and wrote down her mother’s stories as she told them. Many of those stories focused on the family’s values.
“I feel like some of these basic values—unconditional love, how to plan and save,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said. “Just like you use a bank today (to save money), they had to do the same things with food and that kind of thing.”
The values also included the importance of sharing a meal with other family members and planning ahead with the garden.
“They’re cross-cultural, and they’re things that I think kids need to hear, too,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said.
She is working on having her book serve as the basis for a family class on the Oneida Reservation near Green Bay. Families could attend four nights, one per month, and learn about many of the historical and cultural values of the Oneida people.
Cornelius-Grosskopf said she’s also working on getting “Traveling Home” into the public schools, but she fears that school officials might be concerned that the parts about Christianity might cause concern over religious indoctrination.
“I’m in the process of making a guidebook for teachers to use in their classrooms,” Cornelius-Grosskopf said.
She also hopes to meet with state representatives and PBS to further get out the word about the Oneida. The Oneida Tribal Council has already recognized Cornelius-Grosskopf for writing the book and trying to get the tribe’s history and culture in the spotlight.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Book reading and signing for “Traveling Home” by Edi Cornelius-Grosskopf
WHEN: 6-7:30 p.m. June 26
WHERE: Cafeteria, St. James Lutheran School, 324 S. Andrews St., Shawano