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Ely Parker


Ely Parker was a Seneca chief, a legal scholar, an engineer, a Civil War hero, and a Cabinet-level commissioner -- all by the age of 40. At first glance, his story appears to be one of success and triumph. Yet Parker died in poverty far from the land of his birth. In later life he was estranged from his people and dismissed by political leaders he once considered friends. Today, American history remembers him as a mere footnote, and inside the Seneca community, he is a controversial figure -- considered a hero by some, branded a traitor by others.

Ely Parker was born in 1828, during a jouncing, 30-mile buckboard ride as his parents sped home to their Tonawanda Reservation in western New York. Elizabeth and William Parker called their new son Ha-sa-no-an-da, translated from Seneca to "Leading Name," and they would raise him within the traditions of the once-dominant League of the Haudenosaunee (also known as Haudenosawnee or Iroquois). But the 18th and 19th centuries brought rapid change that would define Ha-sa-no-an-da's early years. As white settlements pressed in on Tonawanda, Elizabeth Parker sent her son to a Baptist Mission school where he could get a mainstream education. There, Ha-sa-no-an-da gained a new identity; he adopted the first name of the school's minister and began calling himself Ely Parker.

Ely's "white world" education became paramount when crisis struck Tonawanda: the 1838 and subsequent 1842 Treaties of Buffalo Creek threatened to remove the Senecas to Kansas. As elders planned state and federal appeals, a series of fateful events would place Ely in a leadership role. The first was a brush with English soldiers who mocked Ely's broken attempts at English. The proud young Seneca vowed never to be mocked again, and in 1842 began attending Yates Academy where he mastered the English language in all its forms. Seneca elders had been watching the 14-year-old's progress, and appointed him as their translator, scribe, and interpreter for crucial correspondence and meetings with government leaders.

Ely Parker's meteoric rise in white society did not end with the Civil War. In 1865, he followed General Grant to Washington, D.C., and carved out a new place for himself in American history. As expanding white settlement escalated the so-called Indian Wars in the west, Parker became a spokesman for the "great-grandfather in Washington" and a key consultant on Indian policies. Yet as his political power increased in the nation's capital, so did criticism from the Tonawanda Senecas. They accused him of neglect, and his 1867 marriage to a white socialite named Minnie Orton Sackett did little to bridge a widening cultural chasm. Ely Parker was in metamorphosis; he was rejecting Haudenosaunee tradition and aligning himself with white America.

Parker's attitudinal shift became part of national policy in 1869 when President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was the first American Indian to hold that office, and became the administrator of the Peace Policy that was a hallmark of Grant's administration. Parker's support for military force was controversial, but within a year the Indian Wars were reduced to sporadic outbreaks. Despite early successes, Parker's term as Commissioner was brief, his fall from grace orchestrated by a political foe who accused him of misconduct. An 1871 Congressional committee cleared him of all charges of fraud, but the Commissioner was stripped of his powers. In August 1871 Parker resigned his post, leaving politics and Washington forever.

Ely and Minnie moved on to Fairfield, Connecticut, where they started a new life in a story-book setting. Parker became a businessman, with daily commutes to New York City where he made fortunes on Wall Street. But within five years, the fortunes he made were lost. 1876 found the former Indian Commissioner at loose ends, with few doors of opportunity left open.

The Tonawanda Parkers shared an attitude toward adversity: "Spend no time mourning the failures of the past. Tears make a bitter throat. Look ahead, there is more work to do." With his Wall Street fortunes lost, Ely Parker simply moved on. He tried to reenter engineering, but found his skills were out of date. "The profession ran away from me," Parker wrote. "Young men were wanted for their activity, and the old men were discarded." In 1876, Parker finally found a steady job as a desk clerk with the New York City Police Department. It was his final career, one with little responsibility and very modest pay, but while in New York Parker joined veterans' organizations and for a time revived his career as a public speaker. When Minnie Parker gave birth to the couple's only child, Maud, in 1878, Ely became a devoted father. Then another woman entered Parker's life: a poet and student of the Haudenosaunee named Harriet Maxwell Converse. Their deep friendship and Converse's gentle questions revived Parker's interest in his traditional culture. He began to question his life's path, and to assess the price of walking in two worlds. Although he regretted many of his actions, Do-Ne-Ho-Ga-Wa-'s spirit was rekindled.

Parker spent his last years on earth battling kidney disease, diabetes, and a serious of strokes. In 1895, he went to bed early and died in his sleep. The Haudenosaunee see all of life as a circle, and in death, Ely Parker returned to his beginnings. In 1897 his body was re-interred in Seneca homelands in western New York, next to the grave of the Seneca orator Red Jacket. And with that, the last element of his mother's prophetic dream was fulfilled. The circle was complete.

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