Oneida Nation’s talking portraits promote virtual tourism 

By Frank Vaisvilas


Oneida Nation antique styled digital portraits will tell the Oneida story to visitors (Photo by Frank Vaisvias USA) TODAY

ONEIDA, Wis.- As if they were in a “Harry Potter” film, antique portraits will come to life, talking to each other and to visitors in an upcoming exhibit on the Oneida Reservation.

The portraits feature tribal citizens acting in roles of their individual ancestors who played important parts in the two-century history of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin.

The panels will be displayed as part of a cultural and tourism exhibit on the reservation later this year.

Oneida officials came up with the idea of the digital portraits during the pandemic as a way to promote virtual tourism, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.

“We had to think about how to make tourism more accessible and exciting,” said Michelle Danforth-Anderson, Oneida Nation director of tourism and marketing.

The pandemic shut down virtually everything on the reservation, including the casinos, which have since reopened with partial crowd capacity.

Oneida officials are looking to welcome back a limited number of visitors safely this year as the pandemic wanes, but with cases still rising in some parts of the country and uncertainty about the

COVID-19 variants, they are still looking for ways to limit close contact among people.

The digital portraits are a fun and safe way for the tribe to tell its story to visitors, Danforth-Anderson said.

“We don’t have to be face-to-face giving a tour,” she said.

“People can self-tour.”

The digital portraits will be inside 1800s-themed log cabin exhibits at the Amelia Cornelius Culture Park named after the prominent Oneida official, artist and historian who died in 2016.

The park on the corner of Brown County FF and Wisconsin 54 was dedicated months before the pandemic started.

Telling the Oneida story is even more important this year because this is the 200th anniversary of the tribe establishing itself as an Indigenous nation in Wisconsin.

In one digital portrait, tribal citizen Christopher Powless portrays his three-times great-grandfather, Daniel Bread, who was one of the tribe’s leaders during the move to Wisconsin in 1821.

After bantering with a character in another portrait, Bread (portrayed by Powless) explains how tribal leaders fought against forced relocation and pleaded with the New York governor to be allowed to stay.

“Deep down I had this feeling we were going to move, anyway,” he says.

Powless explained how people could take only one trunk of belongings and had to leave the rest behind for their move to Menominee and Ho-Chunk land that had been set aside for them in northeast Wisconsin.

“This was a new frontier,” he said. “Our people did not want to go.”

Another portrait talks about how Oneida men would serve in another man’s place during the Civil War for $300, and explains that many residents lost their property through allotment to non-tribal people.

The three panels were made by Digital Designs of Green Bay and paid for with $23,000 from the federal coronavirus economic relief package.

Three more digital portraits are being made and will include stories of the infamous boarding schools, which are blamed for forced assimilation and loss of language and culture for most Indigenous people in the U.S.

“Some elders didn’t mind (the boarding school) because they had food, shelter and clothing,” Danforth-Anderson said. “Others have horror stories.”

She said the digital portraits will be ready for display and the park opened likely by the Nation’s Fall Fest during the first weekend of October.

The Oneida Nation Pow-Wow also is being tentatively planned for Aug. 28 and 29 with a 9,000-visitor capacity each day as tribal officials are focusing on holding more outdoor events.

“We’re slowly rebuilding tourism,” she said.


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