L. Gordon McLester, left, and Lawrence Hauptman, right, receiving an award from Dr. George L. Vogt, Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society for their book ‘The Oneida Indian Journey: From New York to Wisconsin, 1784-1860’ in Wisconsin Dells June 10, 2000.
MY FRIEND GORDY AND HIS “BUCKET LIST”
On May 26, 2020, my friend, L. Gordon McLester, III, passed away at a hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Known to his wife as “Lee,” and to all others as “Gordy,” one of his favorite expressions was his desire to accomplish things contained in his “bucket list” before his passing. Indeed, in his 80 years on Turtle Island, he had emptied his overflowing “bucket list,” leaving a remarkable record of personal, family and community history behind. Importantly, Gordy saw accumulating documents and recording history as a way to show the world that Oneidas had a magnificent history and had sacrificed so much for the American nation from the time of the Revolutionary War onward. To Gordy, documents were also a way to fight back since the Oneidas often find themselves in courts challenging elements of their sovereignty.
I first met Gordy on October 17, 1978, when I arrived at Brown County Airport. I had been invited to the Wisconsin Oneida Reservation by Norbert Hill, Sr., the former Wisconsin Oneida Tribal Chairman, after I located the complete medical school record of his mother, Dr. Lillie Rosa Minoka Hill, at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, formerly the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia and now renamed the Drexel University School of Medicine. At the suggestion of Dr. Jack Campisi, I had copied the records and sent them to Mr. Hill. I later communicated to Mr. Hill about my interest in Iroquois history and my plans to write about the 1930s. I told him that I was specifically interested in learning from the Wisconsin Oneidas themselves why, unlike their Iroquois kin in New York, they accepted the new elected structure of government established under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
That day in 1978, after exiting the doors of the airport, a short round fellow came up to me and asked whether I was Laurence Hauptman. He introduced himself as Gordy McLester, an Oneida who had previously served as Wisconsin Oneida Tribal Secretary. I did not know at the time that he would become my mentor and friend for the next 42 years. That night and through my week-long stay, he and his wife Betty graciously allowed me, a total stranger, to ‘crash’ at their home..
Gordy served as my guide for much of the next week, proudly introducing me to the Oneida territory, then approximately 2200 acres, and the people of his nation. They included his grandfather Jim Schuyler; Ruth Baird, the leader of the Oneida Hymn Singers; David Skenandore, the last survivor of the WPA Oneida Language and Folklore Project; and Anderson Cornelius, an early councilor on the Oneida Business Committee under the Indian Reorganization Act. These interviews were the basis of a chapter in my first book, The Iroquois and The New Deal (1981). Although I had been welcomed in other Native American communities before, I had never met the same level of interest or support for my work as a historian that I received at Oneida.
In 1983, when Gordy and Betty visited New Paltz for a conference that I had organized—one of 13 annual conferences that I had organized prior to this one- Gordy got the idea that I could help him plan heritage conferences on the Wisconsin Oneida Territory. Thus began a series of approximately 12 history conferences at Oneida and in Milwaukee from 1986 to 2014 that we planned together. The success of these conferences was due to Gordy’s organizational skills and his ability to recruit his family members to “volunteer” to help out. The speakers at the first conference were mostly white academics; however, this changed over time and almost all the speakers at later conferences were Oneida tribal members, a transformation that he was most proud of pointing out to me. In recording these conferences and undertaking contracts from the Oneida Business Committee for his massive videotaping project interviewing approximately 500 Oneida elders, he amassed a treasure trove of historical information about Oneida history and culture that could be used by Oneidas seeking their own family histories, by Oneida educators seeking to teach their students in the classroom, and by tribal attorneys seeking to defend tribal interests.
Gordy would say to me that his goal was to pick up where the WPA Oneida Language and Folklore Project left off. At first, I thought to myself that this was too lofty a goal to pursue. After all the WPA project left behind several thousand pages of history and culture, an Oneida orthography, and an Oneida hymnal. No other Native American community in the United States had a richer WPA legacy since, unlike at other reservations in Indian Country, Oneidas interviewed Oneidas, all in the Oneida language Yet, he was to succeed in his goal. Besides the 500 interviews and the numerous conferences he organized, he was the author or editor of 5 university press books, a children’s book, and assisted in the publication of a book, Indian Lives (2005), that reprinted some of the stories gathered in the WPA Oneida Language and Folklore Project. [He should be credited with co-authoring one other book, The Oneida Indian Experience: Two Perspectives (1988) that Jack Campisi and I worked on, but his modesty led him to decline our urging to be one of the editors].
Together we traveled to collect documents at Bloomington Indiana, and in Green Bay, Madison, and Nashotah, Wisconsin, and meet publishers in Boston and Madison. We then would brainstorm and decide which direction we would take in our research for the next book. He was “Mr. Inside,” knowing the everyday realities of Oneida existence and contributing immensely to the overall project with his insights in our discussions. He would always point out that the Native world was not simply a carbon copy of what we see in Madison, Albany, or Washington. His comments were most prescient, especially in our discussions of Chief Daniel Bread, the brilliant Oneida who helped plant the roots of his nation in Wisconsin. In contrast, I was “Mr. Outside,” the nerdy academic who enjoyed sitting in an archive all day reading microfilm and plowing through box after box of documents. This collaboration clearly jelled, and with it our friendship.
In 2010, after completing our book A Nation within a Nation, Gordy asked me “what aspect of Oneida history have we left out in our writings?” With his eyesight failing and with my one good eye [ I am blind in my left eye], I hesitated and doubted we could do another joint project. I was also about to retire from teaching. Before I could answer, he responded—“the history of the churches at Oneida.” He was right—we had not done enough about Oneida religious history. Before I hung up the phone, he was already putting his idea into motion, making plans and drawing me into it. He made sense to me since I knew his devotion to the Oneida Church of the Holy Apostles, where he had served as a member of the vestry council. Not deterred by his numerous health concerns, he soon made valuable contacts with the Episcopal Diocese office in Fond du Lac and the historic Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary. Gordy’s organizing led to a conference in 2014 commemorating the 175th anniversary of the of the Oneida Episcopal mission. At that conference, Bishop Matthew Gunter of the Archdioceses of Fond du Lac gave the opening address. Out of this conference also came The Wisconsin Oneidas and the Episcopal Church: A Chain Linking Two Traditions (2019).
There are many other things I could say in praise of Gordy. For example, his participation as a member of Oneida Hymn Singers and his efforts with Gerry Hill to get them recognized with an award from by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008. His friendship with Dr. Jack Campisi led this prominent anthropologist to donate his extensive collection of materials gathered in his 50 years of work to the Wisconsin Oneidas. Yet his greatest achievement is not these nor his books, conferences, or videotaped interviews. Gordy’s jewel is his extended family-his wife of 60 years, his remarkable mother, his three sisters and brother, his 19 grandchildren, his 20 great grandchildren. Indeed, from 1989 to 1993, he and many members of his family were part of 3 cultural exchanges that brought them to Europe. As ambassadors of Oneida culture abroad, they brought a greater awareness of the Indigenous peoples of North America through their performances and talks as they traveled through Switzerland, Germany, and the countries of Scandinavia.
I will miss our weekly talks My hope is that the Oneidas—Wisconsin, Southwold, and New York—will benefit by his legacy and make good use of the materials he collected to educate their children using the Iroquoian expression, for the next “seven generations to come ”