American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Parker, Arthur C.

Arthur Caswell Parker (Gawasowaneh, 1881–1955) was an Indian intellectual who devoted over forty years of his life to New York museums. Most commentators tend to stress that he was only one-quarter Indian by blood, but he thought of himself as simply a modern assimilated Seneca Iroquois Indian of noble descent. He chose wholehearted assimilation into Euro-American culture as his life path and remained heartily resistant to the imposition of any Indian stereotype. Instead, he worked almost ceaselessly to claim, for himself and for the Iroquois, his version of an Indian ethos. At the heart of this quest lay his writing. A workaholic, he wrote 440 separate books, articles and addresses, thirty-two published newspaper articles, 114 radio scripts, and forty-five unpublished articles, speeches and plays, in addition to editing five periodicals.

Arthur C. Parker married Beulah Tahamont (Dark Cloud, Abenaki) on April 23, 1904, then married Anna Theresa Cooke on September 17, 1914, and is survived by his daughter Martha Anne Parker.

Parker began his professional life as an archaeologist in the Science Division of the New York State Museum. He was dedicated to the reconstruction of the American ethnographic past and showed few qualms about desecrating the graves of ancestors in and around his own childhood reservation to significantly enhance the museum's collections. At the State Museum he also developed his sensory, psychological, and entertainment-orientated approach to display and created the life-sized Indian dioramas that stayed there from 1908 to 1976. As he moved into his thirties, Parker produced a number of important anthropological texts, notably Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants (1910), The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet (1913), and The Constitution of the Five Nations (1916). However, finding his anthropological approach criticized as too "Indian" and as focused on advancing Indian culture rather than on scientific objectivity, he increasingly turned his attention to pan-Indian concerns. He gave a huge chunk of his life and energy to the challenge of making the first twentieth-century Indian reform organization, the Society of American Indians (SAI, 1911–1920s) a force to be reckoned with. He ended his involvement with the SAI, sadly disillusioned about the cohesive power of the Indian "race" but convinced that he had helped lay the foundations for vital future reform.

Parker was able to maintain his commitment to social evolution in his best-known role, as Director of the Rochester Museum, New York, from 1924 to 1946. He transformed the institution from relative obscurity to national significance, largely by presenting versions of Indian history that affirmed the triumphant nationalism of the day. He published the influential A Manual for History Museums in 1935. In 1939, after attracting an enormous benefaction from the industrialist Dr. Edward Bausch, he was able to add a spectacular modern building to the museum. During the New Deal years, he promoted two relief programs on the reservations of his childhood, the Tonawanda Community House and the Seneca Arts & Crafts Project. Again, his approach attracted criticism, but his efforts were a practical success. For such practical achievements, as well as his personal kindness, Parker is still remembered today on New York reservations with warmth and appreciation.

Although most of Parker's life was public indeed, he had a secret life in a host of fraternities. The group he gave his heart to was American Freemasonry, in which in 1924 he achieved the highest rank, the thirty-third degree and the title Sovereign Grand Inspector General. As a Mason, he used his Indian heritage and his writing ability to subvert the processes of exclusion that kept middle-class Indians and white Anglo-Saxon Protestants apart. A heart condition forced Parker into retirement at the age of sixty-five, whereupon he returned to writing juvenile and children's books with Iroquois and Indian themes, part of his lifelong effort to connect the oral culture of his childhood with a positive vision of American nationalism. His children's books, especially Skunny Wundy and Other Indian Tales (1926), were successes, and all, in different ways, owed something to his first book-length study of tribal lore, Seneca Myths and Folktales (1923).

Parker was a fascinating and complex man, always deeply frustrated at, as he put it, having "to play Indian in order to be Indian" and determined to live beyond any imposed definition of what an Indian should be. Certainly, with his staunch Republican values, his eugenicist and racist views, his commitment to social evolution and to salvage ethnography, as well as his love of Freemasonry, he defies many of the usual Indian stereotypes. In sum, his illustrious family history, his remarkable life story, and the great wealth of written material he left to posterity all combine to make him one of the most fascinating Indian leaders of the postfrontier era.

Joy Porter


Further Reading
Porter, Joy. 2001. To Be Indian: The Life of Iroquois-Seneca Arthur Caswell Parker. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
 

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