Among all the Native American tribes, the Iroquois people are some of the most well documented Native Americans in history. Indigenous to the northeast region of what is now the United States and parts of Canada, they were among some of the earliest contacts Europeans had with the native tribes. And yet they have remained a constant source of mystery.
The name "Iroquois", like many Native American tribal names, is not a name the people knew themselves by, but a word applied to them by their enemies the Huron, who called them “Iroquo” (rattlesnake) as an insult. The French later added the suffix “ois.” Moreover, the Iroquois are not even a single tribe but a confederation of several different tribal nations that include the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga and the Tuscarora, who didn’t become part of the union until the early 1700’s. The name Haudenosaunee (pronounced “ho-den-oh-SHO-nee”) is the name the people use for themselves, which translates as “the People of the Longhouse.” They are also commonly known as the Six Nations.
One of the best known of the six nations is the Seneca, and arguably the most famous Seneca chief was Ely Samuel Parker. Over the course of his life, he was a Seneca chief, a civil engineer, a close friend and adjutant to General Ulysses S. Grant, an advocate for the Indian peoples, and the first Native American Commissioner of the Department of Indian Affairs. His marriage to a much younger socialite scandalized Washington, and he made a fortune on Wall Street and lost it all. He ended his life in genteel poverty, working for nearly 20 years in an obscure position for the New York City Police Department.
Parker was a largely self-taught engineer, who worked on various canal projects, and was hired by the Department of the Treasury to supervise the construction of several buildings in Galena, Illinois, where he met a shy salesclerk named Ulysses S. Grant. At the age of 18, he dined with President Polk, later talked with President Lincoln, and had the commanding general of the U.S. Army as the best man at his wedding. He was the principal source for the first serious ethnological work by one of the first American ethnologists, who dedicated the book to Parker. He was a plaintiff before the U.S. Supreme Court when he was in his teens and was so important in the Seneca’s struggle to retain their Tonawanda reservation that he was made grand sachem—principal chief—in his early 20s. He tried twice to join the Union forces but was rejected, being told it was a “white man’s war.” He was only able to join the Army through the influence of Grant and another general. His most famous moment came during the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. He transcribed and copied the surrender documents which were signed by Lee and Grant, and he shook hands with Lee, who said to Parker, “It is good to see an original American here.” To that, Parker responded “We are all Americans.”
As this all suggests, Parker was a man of two worlds. He was instrumental in saving some of the Seneca lands, without which the Seneca would have probably been moved west to Kansas. His quest for success was repeatedly stymied by racism, which prevented him from becoming a lawyer and joining the New York bar, and which prevented him from joining the Union forces for two years. He managed to overcome the bias against Native Americans time and time again. He also had a useful knack for making powerful friends, and he remained a Seneca chief all his life, sometimes living on his property on the Tonawanda reservation. As Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he was the most famous and most powerful Native American in America, yet he ended his life sickly and almost forgotten.