One Real American: The Life of Ely S. Parker

One Real American: The Life of Ely S. Parker
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Release Date
October 27, 2020
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Ely S. Parker (1828–1895) is one of the most unique but little-known figures in US history. A member of the Seneca (Iroquois) Nation, Parker was an attorney, engineer, and tribal diplomat. Raised on a reservation but schooled at a Catholic institution, he learned English at a young age and became an interpreter for his people. During the American Civil War, he was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel and was the primary draftsman of the terms of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. He eventually became President Grant’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that post. Award-winning children’s book author and Native American scholar Joseph Bruchac provides an expertly researched, intimate look at a man who achieved great success in two worlds yet was caught between them. Includes archival photos, maps, endnotes, bibliography, and timeline.

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Much Needed Biography
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Ely Parker was born in 1928, a time when many Tonawanda Senecas in New York state were adopting many European conventions, in dress, homes, and sometimes even religion, in the way they lived. Unfortunately, they also had to deal with whites wanting to take their land. Having learned Latin, Greek and other topics taught during this time period, Parker had few academic problems when he attended the Cayuga Academy, although his classmates were often abusive. His education helped him assist a delegation of Tonawanda chiefs on a trip to Washington, D.C. to discuss government settlements that they wished to refuse. He impressed the president and other officials, and even met with John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. He had been considering a career in law, but a friend convinced him that going into engineering would be a better path, and Parker eventually became the resident engineer for New York State Canals. He was also chosen as the "grand sachem" of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1851. While his education and insistence on fashionable frock coats gained him a lot of ground with the white government officials, his knowledge of and respect for his Native culture helped him in the ranks of the Six Nations. When the Civil War started, he tried to enlist, but was turned away. In 1863, John E. Smith asked that Parker be appointed to his staff, and this military service culminated in Parker being the highest ranking Native American in the Union Army, and the man who wrote out the official copy of Lee's surrender at Appomattox. After the war, Parker married Minnie Orton Sackett, a white woman, and struggled to find jobs. He remained active in Native affairs, and passed away in 1895.
Good Points
There are so many biographies of the same people; while it's good to know about Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall, there are only so many biographies of each individual that are needed! I had never heard of Parker, and I also have never read anything that talked about communities of Native Americans during this time period. This was a fascinating look at an individual who was very influential at a time when Native Americans were often treated poorly. Parker was able to forge an unusual path and go between the Native and white worlds, and be trusted in both. His involvement in the Civil War will definitely interest a lot of readers.

The formatting is very well done. Given the rarity of photographs at the time, there is a good selection of them, and a nice mix of people and places. There's plenty of white space on the page, and each page has an attractive border of curlicues around it. It is arranged more like a fiction book than a modern nonfiction book with lots of pictures and color: his lacked sidebars and additional information. This is very appealing to readers who don't like nonfiction and aren't as fond of sidebars as I am.

It's very hard to find #OwnVoices books about Native Americans, although there are starting to be more published. Bruchac is the most well known author of middle grade fiction incorporating Native American themes, and he has done some nonfiction books as well, such as Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story, Jim Thorpe, Original All-American, and Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving. Bruchac always does a great job at making his books readable and also packed full of information.
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