New Oneida chief intent on sharing traditional language, values with community

·3 min read

ONEIDA NATION OF THE THAMES – For the last 10 years, Todd Cornelius made it a priority to share the Oneida language with the children he drove to and from school.

“Shekoli,” meaning “Hello,” the former school bus driver would say.

“Nʌki’wah,” which means “See you later,” he would add as children stepped off the bus.

It took them some time to learn. “They were shy,” said Cornelius. “But after a while, halfway through the school term, they’d be happy to say (the words) back.”

Now, as the new chief of Oneida Nation of the Thames, about 30 minutes southwest of London, he hopes to share the traditional language and values with the rest of the community.

“I’d like to bring people back to speaking the language,” he said, adding that coincides with bringing back traditional medicines and knowledge of treaties.

Cornelius sat on council for two terms before running for chief, holding the portfolios of public safety, special events, housing and lands and estates. After declining nominations to run the last two terms, he was elected chief with a platform built on putting community first. His three pillars include precious love, respect and compassion.

Normally, Cornelius said, “the third time you strike out. But here I am,” he said with a laugh.

On top of being a school bus driver, Cornelius has served as the First Nation’s deputy fire chief for five years and acting chief for two years.

A father of one and husband, Cornelius believes his dedication to supporting the community makes him a strong fit for the role. “I’ve been here my whole life and I don’t plan on going anywhere else,” he said.

Continuing the work of Oneida’s last council, Cornelius plans to push for an improved water supply. The First Nation has been under a boil-water advisory since 2019, and periodically before then, and is looking at options to join either the Lake Huron or Lake Erie water supply systems.

“There are only a couple roads that have fire hydrants, and other than that, we have to (bring) the water in,” said Cornelius, referring to a December 2016 incident in which a father and his four kids were killed in a house fire.

“That pretty much hit home for me,” he said.

A year later, Cornelius led the push to get smoke alarms in every house in the First Nation.

Putting aside the title of deputy fire chief for the new political role, he still will be involved with the fire department when needed. “As soon as my pager goes off, I’m there,” Cornelius said, adding most of the calls come in during the evenings.

The Oneida people are known as Onyota’a:ka, which means “People of the Standing Stone.” The First Nation is home to around 2,170 people and has more than 6,000 members.

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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