They both are owned by the Oneida Nation and they are located only eight miles from each other, but centuries separate the Oneida Cultural Center and Turning Stone Casino.
The Shako:wi Cultural Center is a two-floor museum totaling about 600 square feet with displays that both explain and honor centuries of Oneida history. The casino is massive, with hundreds of hotel rooms; 14 restaurants; a comedy club; a loud nightclub with semiclad, dancing young women; enough shopping to qualify as a mini-mall; golf; and thousands of people walking around, playing slot machines, sometimes looking happy, sometimes looking confused. It features big-name entertainment, including Jewel, the Irish Rovers, the Oak Ridge Boys and dozens of others. You could pick up Turning Stone with a giant crane, move it to Las Vegas, and it wouldn’t be out of place.
Shako:wi is dignified. Turning Stone is glitzy.
A friend and I went to Turning Stone, and since neither of us gamble, we walked around, checked out some stores and looked for an inexpensive restaurant. The cheapest thing we found on any menu was $2.25 for a Coke. So we left.
We went on a Saturday, planning to visit Shako:wi. Its brochure and its website said it was open on Saturdays. But it was closed. We checked at the convenience store/gas station on the other side of the parking lot – also owned by the Oneida Nation – and were told that since so few people showed up on Saturdays, management decided to close.
Before heading back alone the following Thursday, I made sure to call first, explaining that I had already made a two-hour, one-way drive, and asked, “Are you certain you will be open today?” “If we say we’re open, we’re open,” I was told. She didn’t apologize. Well, at least the young folks in the convenience store were polite.
I forced myself to not allow my crankiness to influence me. I must have succeeded. I’ve been in Native American cultural centers in at least a half dozen states in the West, and Shako:wi was as impressive as any. The focus was on the common man, woman and child in a culture that all but ceased to exist more than a century ago. It was less about warriors and glory in battle and famous chiefs than any of the others I’ve visited.
On the second floor is an exhibit of basketry and baskets that show how 18th and 19th century Oneida women made one of their culture’s most useful objects.
There are four dioramas, on long-term loan from the New York State Museum, showing Oneidas in everyday activities. A woman making a basket. A woman weaving while a baby sleeps in a cradle basket. A woman potter. A man carving a wooden bowl. A man working with flints.
Another exhibit proclaims “Lacrosse: National Sport of the Iroquois.”
The Oneida Nation is one of the six member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. (The others are Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora.)
There’s a gift shop on the first floor where nearly everything on sale was made by today’s Oneidas. A small bead purse sells for $100. A hand-carved walking stick goes from $70. And there’s a T-shirt that says “People of the Standing Stone,” which is what Oneida means. That sells for $10. (One of the stores at Turning Stone also sells Oneida crafts and art works).
The only part of the museum that seems out of place is a display about Geronimo. There’s no explanation about why a man who belonged to a culture more than 2,000 miles away would be honored here. While names of various Oneida are mentioned in other displays, the only name most visitors are likely to recognize is Geronimo.
It’s the only display that detracts from the sense of this being a cultural center about everyday people. It’s the most Hollywoodish part of the center. It belongs at Turning Stone.
Next door to the cultural center is a one-room log cabin that I was told once belonged to a member of the Oneida Nation. It was closed and had no signs, but looking in through a window you could see that it was pretty modern, as such places go. It had what looked like a closet or bathroom, and was probably a product of the 20th century.
Shako:wi, by the way, is the Oneida name of the late Richard Chrisjohn, who devoted much of his life to trying to keep his culture’s language and traditions alive. It means “he gives.”
If you go
Take I-90 to Exit 34. Turn left on to Route 13. Go 1∑ miles, turn left on Route 5. Go 5½ miles. Turn right on Route 46. Go almost 3 miles. Turn left on Territory Road. Shako:wi is visible at the end of the parking lot on your left.
To get to Turning Stone from Shako:wi, turn right on Route 46, go 2.8 miles. Turn right on Route 5, go four-tenths of a mile to Route 365. Turn left on 365, go 3½ miles. Turning Stone will be very visible on your left. There’s plenty of free parking at both locations.
Suggestion: Call Shako:wi first to make certain it is open: (315) 829-8801. No photography is permitted inside the cultural center.