Craig Williams (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Ely Parker (Seneca, 1828-1895) served as a bilingual and intercultural communicator and diplomat throughout his life, and has been described by one biographer as a “warrior in two camps” (Armstrong 1978; see Parker 1919 for an invaluable earlier biography by Parker’s great-nephew, and Michaelsen 1996 and Rifkin 2014 for more recent discussions). Born and raised among his people on the Tonawanda Reservation in western New York State, as a student at the nearby Cayuga and Yates academies Parker perfected his knowledge of English and studied Greek and Latin. In 1852 he was selected to be one of the hereditary chiefs of the Seneca people, and a decade later, Ulysses S. Grant chose Parker to be his military secretary during the U.S. Civil War. Parker was the scribe of the surrender documents signed at the famous 1865 meeting at the Appomattox Court House at which he was present, and when Grant became U.S. president, he chose Ely Parker as the first American Indian to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, an office he held from 1869 to 1871, at the arguable height of the Reconstruction Era.
In this paper I consider some of the ways in which Parker makes use of Greco-Roman antiquity in his surviving writings, which include correspondence and lecture notes, some of it in unpublished manuscripts. I first briefly situate Parker within the history of Native North American writers’ uses of images of Greco-Roman antiquity and its prestige languages of learning as expressions of indigenous survivance (for some moments and aspects of this history see Freiert 2013, Laird 2014, Vance 2016, Williams 2022; for relevant themes in Native American literature see Weaver 1997, Warrior 2005, Justice 2018). Then I show how Parker deploys references to Greco-Roman antiquity in his critique of contemporary U.S. policy toward American Indian tribes in a period marked by a relentless westward expansionism which culminated in the declaration of the “closure of the frontier” by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890. Finally, I show how Parker makes use of the “classical” antiquity of settler-colonial culture to educate Euro-American audiences about the ancient and still-living culture of his own Iroquois people, whom both Euro-American and Iroquois writers have described as “the Romans of the New World.”