One can learn about Oneida values and culture through Amelia Cornelius’ dolls since the dolls portray the traditional roles of men and women as well as traditional dress of the Oneida, circa 1800s. Amelia Cornelius vividly remembers the stories her grandfather would tell and how much she enjoyed spending time with him to hear the many experiences of his life and his knowledge of tribal affairs and traditional history. He has inspired her to perpetuate this rich tradition of meaningful stories into her cornhusk doll making of today.
Cornelius’ grandmother taught her how to make white cornhusk dolls in the traditional Oneida way. She uses traditional white corn because the husk is longer, whiter and is easier to work with than any other type of cornhusk. Since finding this white corn can be challenging due to its scarcity during some seasons she would like to begin growing her own. This would ensure that she has access to a plentiful source of white corn to accommodate her ever-growing market and also to keep up with her own imagination to create future series of dolls.
One series of dolls entitled, “Oneida Nation’s Nine Chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy,” was displayed throughout Wisconsin in 2009. The dolls are representative of the Oneida style of dress for men and are made without faces to represent that one’s life has a purpose for which we are to discover and follow along a humble path. She’s envisioning that her next series of dolls will focus more on the roles of women in Oneida culture. Women play a significant and meaningful role in Oneida life and leadership, which Cornelius feels, is not emphasized enough for others to learn.
Cornelius does not just make her dolls for show and sale. She researches traditional styles of clothing and adornment, significance of beadwork design, and traditional storytelling for metaphors and symbolism, which all lead her to create dolls with deep cultural connection and meaning. She also likes to accompany her dolls with supplemental educational materials that relay historical significance to younger generations and general public so they might gain a better understanding of Oneida culture.
One can find Cornelius’ dolls on permanent display at Marriott Residence Inns in Sacramento, California and the District of Columbia. She also exhibits with her daughter Kim. Kim represented the mother-daughter doll-making duo at the 32nd Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1998.
The Regional Artist Fellowship will allow Cornelius to focus on the importance of the Oneida women within her culture. Her focus to this point has been on the Sachems (chiefs) of the Oneidas. She also looks forward to a greater exposure by traveling to more art shows, and developing a website.
Learning from past generations is what motivates me to tell the stories my grandfather shared with me . . . and to make the cornhusk dolls my grandmother taught me how to make. It is my desire to pass these traditions on to my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, so they will not be lost forever.
~ Amelia Cornelius
Amelia Cornelius passed away in March 2016, at the age of 78. While we are deeply saddened by the loss of this artist, we are honored to have supported her heritage practice, and again reminded of the urgency to preserve, honor, and pass on Native culture and tradition-based knowledge.
The following is her artist biography, written in 2015.