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Ely S. Parker and Native contributions to anthropology

Friend of Lewis H. Morgan, U.S. Grant’s secretary, Commissioner of Indian Affairs

[T]he dismissal of anthropology as a merely White science of the Other is woefully underinformed historically. (Whiteley 2004: 501)

The life of Ely Samuel Parker gives the lie to the taken for granted notion that Native Americans were passive, exploited research specimens during the early days of anthropology in the United States.

Ely Samuel Parker was born in 1828 near Tonawanda Creek on what was then Seneca territory.

Marker near Tonawanda Creek in Genesee County, New York, commemorating the birthplace and life of Ely S. Parker.

At age 16 he and attorney/burgeoning ethnologist Lewis H. Morgan chanced upon one another while the two were perusing an Albany bookstore. They formed an intellectual and personal relationship, so much so that Morgan dedicated his 1851 League of the Ho-de′-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois—often said to be the first modern example of the genre of ethnography—to Parker, in fulsome Victorian prose. Despite contemporary notions of Morgan as the embodiment of clueless white privilege at best and voracious racist at worst, he himself very publicly acknowledged his reliance upon the knowledge and intellect of a POC.

to Hä–sa–no–an´–da / (Ely S. Parker) / a Seneca Indian, / this work, / the materials of which are the fruit of our joint researches, / is inscribed: / in acknowledgment of the obligations, and / in testimony of the friendship of / the author

Lewis H. Morgan’s dedication page of his ‘League of the Iroquois’ to Ely Parker.

Parker did a great, great deal more with his life, of course. Among other things, he was a member of U.S. Grant’s staff during the Civil War. As Grant’s secretary he drafted the final version of the instrument of surrender at Appomattox Court House. After the war Grant appointed Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, making him the first Native American to hold the post.

In this photo of Ulysses S. Grant’s staff by Mathew Brady, Parker is the third person (second seated) from far right.


Armstrong, William H. 1978. Warrior in two camps: Ely S. Parker, Union general and Seneca chief. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1851. League of the Ho-de′-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois. Rochester, N.Y.: Sage & Brother.

Moses, Daniel Noah. 2009. The promise of progress: the life and work of Lewis Henry Morgan. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Tooker, Elisabeth. 1994. Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois material culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Whiteley, Peter M. 2004. “Why anthropology needs more history.” Journal of Anthropological Research 60 (4): 487–514.

About the author

Matthew Timothy Bradley


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