How theatre led to the rediscovery of Oneida Nation activist's handwritten letters
A Syracuse Stage play is bringing central New York Haudenosaunee history to life, as historic communications between the Oneida Nation's Mary Cornelius Winder and the United States government were uncovered by the creation of the play "Our Words Are Seeds."
"Our Words Are Seeds” is a new play written for "Backstory" – a Syracuse Stage educational theatre program targeted at middle and high school audiences telling under-told stories. Syracuse Stage's Director of Education Kate Laissle said it's aimed at telling the stories of curriculum-adjacent figures, students might not already be learning about.
"One of the things that we want to focus on is the fact that a seventh grader is only going to do seventh grade once," Laissle said. "But a teacher of seventh grade is going to teach seventh grade forever. We want to make it exciting for the seventh-grade teachers as well."
Syracuse Stage started commissioning plays for Backstory, sometimes asking playwrights to write about certain topics or people. This time, they asked playwright Ty Defoe, an Oneida and Anishinaabe artist, who he wanted to write about. Defoe said he landed on Mary Cornelius Winder, aiming to amplify an individual who was working to create justice for Indigenous people.
"Who has been writing letters since 1924 to the United States Government about the liberation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Oneida people, the land itself," Defoe said. "Educating future generations to come. There it was — right at the center — were these letters. It was right under my nose in particular, of things that were not being talked about in the community because of the way that change might bring about in communities, the way that liberation might bring about in communities and real conversations that folks might have."
Mary Cornelius Winder
Mary Cornelius Winder was a member of the Oneida Nation and spent years writing letters to the United States government asking them to honor their treaties with the Haudenosaunee people.
Oneida lands were affirmed under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua which said they were not to be disturbed or claimed. The U.S. government did not honor the treaty, leaving only 32 acres of unceded territory in what is now Madison and Oneida counties
Defoe as the playwright had a challenge: combing through the letters and rearranging the language so a contemporary audience could have an understanding. He remembers staying up all night reading them, writing some of the cursive letters out in print to better understand them, and the wide range of emotions that came with it.
“There were moments where I literally wept and cried," Defoe said. "I start to weep and cry for the young people who don't know this information, the sleeping generations that had no idea. I started to get angry about some of the misinformation between fighting communities.”
Throughout the play, the fictional grandchild of Winder, Schenandoah who is Oneida and Onondaga, is deciding whether they're going to stay with their family on Onondaga land, or whether they're going to go to college, and how are they going to both honor themselves and their families. They find copies of the letters their grandmother wrote tucked away in their house, reading one aloud.
"In the treaty which I have a copy of New York State agreed to pay $3 a hundred acre for rent until they bought it,” Schenandoah reads. "They have never bought it. They have never paid any rent. They also said that if squatters were to come upon it, we were to notify the New York state governor who would remove them. There are now squatters on it."
Winder's real-life great-granddaughter, Michelle Schenandoah, remembers hearing of her great-grandmother’s involvement in land rights, saying it inspired her to become a lawyer. She was in her first year of law school when the 2005 City of Sherrill vs. Oneida Indian Nation of New York case was decided. She said it shut the door on land claims by the Oneidas and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg citing the doctrine of discovery, a series of papal bulls starting in 1493 in the Vatican which gave European explorers the right to come to the Americas and claim the land as their own.
“When you look at things like the doctrine of discovery, you can see a direct tie to bigger issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women, the taking of Indigenous lands everywhere," Michelle Schenandoah said. "You can see it's connected to genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the entire Americas. The taking of resources that still continues to this day. The exploitation of land and resources is really legitimized by this doctrine of discovery.”
Finding the Letters
Michelle Schenandoah remembers seeing a letter from her great-grandmother for the first time.
“[I felt] where her pen had made imprints on the paper," Michelle Schenandoah said. "I just felt so connected to her, to the work that she had put forward into the world. To me, it was very meaningful because it brought everything full circle. Knowing that what I chose to do in my life was also correct."
Michelle Schenandoah and other descendants of Winder had the chance to see those letters in person at the National Archives in New York City. She said she could see the lineage of the litigation of the Land Back movement through the letters Winder and her father wrote throughout the years.
"We're talking almost basically like we're looking at a hundred-year history here," Michelle Schenandoah said. "Still to this day, land rights and land issues are still on the table and how this work, started by Mary, started by her father, by the Oneidas, by the Haudenosaunee is still very active and still very integrated and connected."
Shirlee Winder, Mary Cornelius Winder's granddaughter, said tears were welling up as she looked through the writings.
"Very emotional plus our writing is so similar — that long handwriting," Shirlee Winder said. "My theory is our DNA remembers, whether it be good or bad or indifferent, and this, to me, is part of my proof."
"Our Words Are Seeds"
Many of the letters dive into land rights and land issues.
"Is it true the Oneida's are getting money next January?" Mary Cornelius Winder's fictional grandchild Schenandoah reads in the play. "And if so how much? I am an Oneida Indian married to a white man, can they cut me off for that reason? I have three children and in my tribe's law, it is the mother's side they follow. Will they get their shares too? Thanking you, Mrs. Mary Winder."
Laissle said some show moments of everyday life — like the difficulty of traveling to Syracuse in the winter.
"Found out that she had entered into the New York State Fair in the Native American crafts competition and won in bead work and rug looming," Laissle said. "Which is not necessarily related to this play —it's not about land claims, but it is just one of these things, of finding how human people from our past are. These little nuances of humanity."
Michelle Shenandoah notes the timelessness of what Mary Cornelius Winder was fighting for in her letters decades ago, and what the Oneidas continue to push for today.
“It's very touching," Michelle Shenandoah said. "It's very moving. It kind of takes you into this vortex of time. And you realize there is no time difference, because what she was saying then applies in so many ways now, in terms of the Oneida's continued position to assert ourselves as sovereign people as a sovereign nation and our right to our lands.”
"Our Words Are Seeds" will tour through local schools in Spring 2025.
Excerpts of Mary Cornelius Winder's letters courtesy of the National Archives