Pictured, from left, are Josie Gibson and Cameron Shenandoah, who are both Oneida members and Mark Gillmeister, a student from Oneida High School who volunteered to help with the dig.

Students Explore 500 Year Old Oneida Indian Nation Village


The Madison County town of Smithfield, New York was home to the Oneida Indian Nation from about 1550 to 1575, and a recent Youth Work Learn Program brought students back to the Vaillancourt dig site for further exploration.

“Oneida Nation leaders recognize how important it is to teach our children the value of who we are,” said Randy Phillips, program director for the Oneida Nation Youth Work Learn Program. “The nation has a commitment to children; they recognize that children are the future and the elders are a valuable part of our past and those two things together make a strong nation.”

Last year students in the program identified longhouse features and in previous years students have unearthed arrowheads and pieces of ancient pottery. During this year’s dig the students found smaller pieces of pottery, flint and deer bone fragments from meals and tool making. The students also discovered post mold features, which are areas where longhouse supports were buried in the ground.

“It connects the history of long ago with today. We have students on this site who are experiencing things that they probably never would have. Things that they talked about in the classroom but couldn’t experience,” Phillips said. “This program helps makes that connection between history and the present, and how life was back then.”

The nation’s youth program has been exploring the dig site at Vaillancourt—named for the family that owned the land when artifacts were first found there more than 100 years ago—since 2004. The Oneida Indian Nation purchased the land in 2003.

“The teens are eager to learn. We work to show them what’s what, and after the first week, they have a pretty good idea of how to identify real artifact pieces. It may take awhile to get a final idea on everything that we have at this site,” said Jesse Bergevin, a historic resource specialist with the Oneida Nation. “Over these last two years, we’ve explored just a 12-foot area. Most longhouses were 60-70 feet in length, and the largest one on this site was 225 feet.”

The Oneida Nation’s Youth Work Learn program provides an introduction to formal work settings for youth between the ages of 13 and 20 over a six-week period. They not only participate in the archaeological dig, but experience working in the nation’s health center, library, convenience stores and more.

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