On the cross-cultural relationship and experiences of one of 19th century America’s most inspiring figures.
There are many reasons why I began this blog with a brief (now tragically lost) entry on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I guess what it boiled down to was that as I began to contemplate the concept of a Hall of American Inspriration, I knew that Du Bois would be one of my first, unanimous inductees. Not because he was perfect—he wasn’t, far from it—but because, I suppose, of a trifecta of core details: he spent his life trying to do things he felt were significant; he committed to each of those things with passion and seriousness and a desire to do them as well as he could and appropriate levels of (and balance between) ambition and humility; and he remained, even into his later years, very open to the voices and perspectives of the people both with and for whom he was doing them. Yup, those are pretty much the measuring sticks for induction into Ben’s Hall of American Inspiration.
I’ve known that I felt that way about Du Bois for a long time, at least since my sophomore year of college when I read a lot by and about him. Some of the other people who would be on the short list for inaugural induction I’ve known about for even longer, and would come as no surprise to anybody who knows me (Bruce, John Sayles, Val Kilmer) (just kidding about the last one, I love the dude but I’m afraid he falls short on that whole balance of ambition and humility item). But another one is a very recent discovery who has rocketed toward the top of the list: Ely Parker (1828-1897). I learned about Parker while working on a couple page portion of my second book—the opening couple pages of my chapter on the 19th century focus on Lewis Henry Morgan, the pioneering anthropologist who worked extensively on the Seneca Iroquois and was even adopted into the tribe; and Morgan, who is pretty impressive and inspiring in his own right, admired the heck out of Parker and helped him enter many of the worlds (engineering and work on the Erie Canal; law and politics and the fight for the tribe’s homeland and sovereignty; the military and service in the Union Army, through which he ended up drafting the Confederacy’s surrender terms at Appomattox Court House) to which he contributed his tireless work and passion from the late 1840s to the end of his life.
Any one of those worlds and efforts would be a good starting point for Hall of Inspiration consideration, and the cumulative effect of them is pretty overwhelming. But as with Du Bois, what I find particularly interesting and inspiring about Parker is something less explicitly heroic or impressive, but even more (to my mind) American—his complicated location amidst and between multiple communities and identities, and his determination not to simplify that position nor reject one or another of his identities and worlds. The name he was given when he was made a sachem of the tribe translates to “Open Door,” and I think that’s very apt (as was Morgan’s tribal name, which translates to “Bridging the Gap”—they were spot-on with those names, the Seneca), both in his own life and in his role as a mediating figure (anthropologically, politically, legally, militarily, ideologically, you name it) between the tribe and the American government on multiple levels. As was sometimes the case with Du Bois, Parker’s attempts at mediating and unwillingness to simplify either his own identity or his connections to both his ethnic and his national communities (such as in his post-Civil War marriage to a white socialite) were, at times, met with harsh criticism from more fully ethnically focused peers (and Parker himself apparently questioned, toward the end of his life, some of the work he did as the first Native Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a position he held in the scandal-filled administration of his old general, Ulysses Grant). But despite such specific critiques, I don’t think anyone familiar with Parker’s life and work could question for a second his thoroughgoing commitment to improving the lives of his fellow Americans, native and otherwise.
The last years of Parker’s life were defined at least in part by losses (financial, on Wall Street, and in other ways) and self-doubts (particularly about whether he had been able to maintain as well as he had hoped that balance between the different communities to which he dedicated his life). But they were also defined by another dialogic and mutually beneficial relationship, one very much parallel to his with Morgan—he was approached by a poet named Harriet Maxwell Converse who had an abiding interest in his tribe, and the two developed a friendship that helped Parker reexamine his life and identity and communicate them to an interested European American partner once more. If I can help him continue to do the same, even a century after his death, maybe I’ll have helped pass his inspiration along.
Next nominee tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?
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