“So it even changed between you and your grandmother!”
“Well, yeah, because the white people got involved. I call that the ‘whitenizing.'”
I sit in Shenandoah Books, Etc. with Oneida owner Paul Skenandore as he tells me how he chose the bookstore’s name. He briefly–very briefly–considered using his own name (“‘Paul’s bookstore’? That’s really sad!”) before deciding on his grandmother’s name, which is an Oneida word, instead.
“I don’t pronounce it correctly, but it means ‘Little Deer’—the word ‘ah’ at the end means ‘little’, and the word itself means ‘deer.’ I only know a little bit [of Oneida]. I never heard the language when I was young, so it’s very hard to pick it up.”
There is Native American art and literature all across the walls and in the bookshelves, and Paul talks enthusiastically about the culture and history of the Oneida tribe and natives in general, but he hasn’t always been so immersed in or aware of it. He was raised in an orphanage, and never learned the history of the Oneida until he began, as he puts it, “to ask the why.”
“I had to find out what happened to the Oneida, and how we so-called lost the land,” he tells me. “I didn’t know any of my own history until I was 33, and actually I wrote it on a piece of paper on my typewriter, and then I set it aside for I-don’t-know-how-long, and then I read it, and then I go, ‘Hey! Good stuff!’ But I was 33 years old before I read something good about me; about my people.”
He read and studied histories, past treaties and law, collecting books as he went. Soon, he continues, he owned five or six thousand books, “and I couldn’t throw a book away, because I believe in knowledge; I believe intensely in knowledge.”
“I’ve got an Indian section over there,” he adds, pointing to bookshelves beside him. “Just recently, within the last 20 or 30 years, we have Indian people writing books. Before that, it was anthropologists. They decided, ‘This is how they are.’”
After just a few minutes of talking with Paul, however, you quickly realize that he is doing his part to make his own voice heard. He enthusiastically talked about history, political structure, education, religion and racism (which is a topic he’s particularly passionate about). We discussed so many areas outside of books that I had to ask him what he thought about oral tradition versus written stories. He answered, very appropriately, with a story.
“There was a chief, and he was asked one time by some anthropologist, who said, ‘Well, how come you do the oral [tradition]?’ And the chief said, ‘If we don’t do it, we forget it.’” Paul went on to explain that words that are written down can change meaning more than words passed down through oral tradition. “The interpretations [of a text] are different. A word does have a meaning to you,” he said. “As you get older, the same word becomes something different. But in the oral tradition, the word is the same.”
“So why do you have a bookstore, then?”
“I’m just a bookaholic! And I get into conversations like this; I enjoy the conversation!” And conversation you will have when you visit Shenandoah Books, Etc. Take a part in spoken and written histories and meet the owner, who likes to say, “You, as long as you live, never have the right not to ask why.”