Congressional Vote Cancels Donation to National Park Service

Jerry Reynolds
6/30/04

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. - Congress flexed its feet of clay June 21, and the
latest Oneida contribution to the American Revolution bit the dust - for
now.

A traditional Edge of the Woods ceremony had been planned for June 22. The
Oneida Indian Nation of New York Men's Council, Clan Mothers and individual
members in ceremonial dress were to have emerged from the woods at the
crest of a hilltop near a historic Valley Forge encampment. They were to
have been met by "colonists" (National Park Service personnel in period
dress) on horseback. After meeting in peace and friendship, the groups were
to have walked together to a group of assembled dignitaries, including
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. There, after both groups had planted their
respective flags, the Oneida were to have presented a $10 million donation
to the National Park Service for its American Revolution Center at Valley
Forge.

The Oneida intended the ceremony as a distant echo of their last mass visit
to Pennsylvania, in the harsh winter of 1777 - 1778. The Oneida, defending
traditional territories, had fought British rule alongside the hard-pressed
Continental Army in key engagements. But equally important was its
contribution of 600 bushels of corn to a starving army at Valley Forge.
That starvation winter is universally renowned as the "do or die" hour of
the American Revolution. The Oneida corn, drawn from the tribe's own
limited stores in Upstate New York, was crucial at a time when every little
bit counted. The modern Oneida contribution would help to tell its
little-known story at the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge.

But the 108th Congress is a far cry from the Continental Congress,
desperate for resources. The 108th Congress is more desperate to keep track
of the nation's resources, and so on June 21 the House of Representatives
voted for a review of Park Service projects to determine their future costs
upon completion. With $300 million in Park Service projects now underway in
collaboration with the private sector, congressional members said,
taxpayers deserved to know the full price-tag of each project. The Park
Service interpreted the vote to mean it must put a moratorium on
fundraising for all such projects.

With that last-minute interpretation, considered so dubious that
Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Hoeffel, a Democrat, immediately blamed a turf war
between NPS and congressional committee staffers and told the Philadelphia
Inquirer "There is no way they should have canceled the gift ceremony ...
the Park Service hit the panic button here," while still others at the Park
Service pointed to Oneida land claims litigation and gaming interests,
features that have not halted other tribal donations to national
institutions - still and all, with that last-minute interpretation, the
horizons at Valley Forge were devoid of all but tourists June 21. The only
reminders of the ceremony that wasn't were a tent, a few individual Indians
who had perhaps remained behind after the main Oneida contingent turned
around, an apologetic parks employee and two dignitaries who had not gotten
the word.

Oneida first citizen Ray Halbritter said the about-face had left the nation
and its representatives disappointed, puzzled and insulted, but added that
the contribution might still take place. "Let's not let politics get in the
way of honoring these brave men and women. Still, we hope we can get this
resolved to everyone's satisfaction if only for the sake of the memories of
these patriots."

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