Parker, Arthur Caswell

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Arthur Caswell Parker

Arthur C. Parker (1881–1955) was among the most important Native American scholars and intellectuals of the twentieth century. Of an ethnically diverse background, he was a complex figure familiar from childhood with both Native American and European American cultures, but not always fully at home in either atmosphere.

Parker's writings on the Seneca and Iroquois cultures are still read and used today by anthropologists. Additionally, he filled the role of public intellectual several times during his career, writing books about Native American culture for general audiences and attempting to advance awareness of modern Native American identity among the general American public. Parker held leadership positions in pan-Indian institutions, and his efforts to promote trans-tribal solidarity among Indian groups, though they ran into difficulties at the time, had lasting influence. Parker's museum work, too, was influential; he was one of the first museum administrators to view the museum as a tool of cultural education, and he was an early adopter of such familiar museum elements as the diorama.

Considered Non-Indian

Born April 5, 1881, on the Seneca tribe's Cattaraugus Reservation in New York's Finger Lakes region, Parker had a complex identity from the start. He was descended on his father's side from a long line of Seneca leaders; his uncle Ely Parker was a Civil War veteran who had been part of the inner circle of General Ulysses S. Grant and later became the first Native American named United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker's father and grandfather, however, both married women of European descent; Parker's mother Geneva was a missionary and teacher of Scottish background. Since Seneca clan membership is matrilineal (reckoned through the mother's side), neither Parker nor his father was considered a Seneca. Parker's father worked for the New York Central Railroad and continued to live, however, on a family farm on Seneca land, so Parker spent most of his childhood there. Adding to the complications of his background was the fact that though he was raised as a Christian, his family had ties to the traditional Seneca religion that had been carried forward into the modern era by the prophet Handsome Lake. And, he wrote in the introduction to Skunny Wundy, his book of Seneca stories, into the family home would come "many a visitor from the wilder parts of the reservation, visitors who lived back in the woods or on the hill where the long-house people dwelt, they who followed the old Indian customs and had grotesque masks and dances and who wore feathers and buckskins."

Parker's family left the reservation and moved to White Plains, New York, north of New York City, in 1892. Parker graduated from high school there in 1897, although he would return to school several times, his high school diploma represented his last completed degree. Intensely curious, and later a prolific writer who issued some 250 books and articles, he nevertheless was restless in formal educational settings and abandoned them when he felt called to turn directly to important work. Plus, wherever he went to school, he never quite fit in. "I was too far ahead for a government [Indian] school and too poor to go to college," he wrote (as quoted by his biographer Joy Porter in To Be Indian: The Life of Iroquois-Seneca Arthur Caswell Parker). "I worked my way through the rudiments of an education and when I was through school I realized that my education had just begun. I studied faithfully ever since, laying out a course of study for myself every year."

Briefly attending the Centenary Collegiate Institute in Hackettstown, New Jersey, Parker got his real education when he became a frequent visitor to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Curators there, including Harvard anthropology professor Frederick W. Putnam, were impressed by Parker's serious attitude and took time to answer his questions, even when he brought in birds' eggs or random pieces of pottery he found. Parker also became acquainted with writer Harriet Maxwell Converse, a poet and journalist with an interest in Native American culture. He called her Aunt Hattie and attended a "salon"—an intellectual discussion group—at her home that included both Indian and white members.

A friend of Converse's introduced Parker to anthropologist Franz Boas, who was in the process of founding a highly influential Ph.D. program in anthropology at Columbia University in New York and urged Parker to apply. But Parker was not comfortable with Boas, partly because Boas disparaged the work of pioneer ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan, a close friend and associate of Ely Parker. Parker chose instead to take the advice of a clergyman on the Seneca Reservation and enrolled in 1900 at Dickinson Seminary in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, planning to become a minister. He left that program after three years, however, without a degree.

Honed Writing Skills as Reporter

Parker continued to do archaeological work on the side while at Dickinson, working on digs on the nearby Cattaraugus Reservation and at the Oyster Bay Indian mounds on Long Island. The trips back to Seneca land were homecomings that deepened his interest in Indian traditions. He apprenticed himself to archaeologist Mark Harrington, to whom Putnam had recommended him. Sometimes he wrote science articles for the New York Sun newspaper, and his voluminous future writings, whether technical or not, were generally clear and accessible. Parker gained a reputation as a hard worker, and other archaeological assignments, on Iroquois land and elsewhere, began to come his way. On his own he began an organized plan of action to collect information about Seneca culture, and he was recognized as a rising authority on the tribe. In 1903 he was made a Seneca in a ceremony and given the name Gáwasowaneh (or Gawaso Wanneh), which meant Big Snow Snake. Other anthropologists had been similarly honored, but another ceremony, in which Parker was inducted into an Iroquois secret medicine society, was more unusual. Later in life Parker's friends in the museum world gave him yet another name, "The Chief."

Hired in 1903 as a field ethnologist by the New York State Library and Museum, Parker collected speeches, folk tales, and objects relating to Iroquois culture. The following year he married Beatrice Tahamont, a woman of Abenaki background. They had two children but later divorced. By a second wife, Anna, he had one child. After passing a state civil service exam, Parker advanced to the position of staff archaeologist with the state museum. This period of his life was productive in terms of scholarly writing; he wrote several major books on Seneca and Iroquois culture, but one of them, The Constitution of the Five Nations (1916), was criticized because reviewers felt he had not sufficiently investigated the origins of the documents he used. Among Parker's other books were An Erie Indian Village and Burial Site (1907), Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants (1910), The Code of Handsome Lake, Seneca Prophet (1913, with drawing by Seneca artist Jesse Cornplanter), Seneca Myths and Folktales (1923), and Red Jacket: Last of the Seneca, reprinted as Red Jacket: Seneca Chief. As Parker advanced in the museum profession he had less and less time to spend on research, but he continued to write when he could. He remained at the New York State Museum until 1924.

Another major time commitment for Parker came when he helped found the Society for American Indians (SAI) in 1911, later advancing to the positions of secretary and president of that organization. The SAI was something of a Native American counterpart to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); it was a group that worked toward the full integration of Indians into American life even as they retained and built on their identities as Indians. Parker, like many other Native Americans, felt tension between those goals, and the issue of Indian participation in World War I led to disagreements within the group. Parker believed that the integration of Native Americans into the U.S. armed forces would help their position in society in general, but others asked why Indians, who were not citizens, should fight for a country that denied them civil rights. After editing the society's American Indian Magazine for five years, Parker left the organization. He acted as a consultant on Indian affairs to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, and Coolidge, but later in life he became discouraged about the possibilities for full assimilation of Indians into American society.

Appointed Museum Director

In 1925 Parker became the director of the Rochester Museum, later renamed the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences. He fit the profile of a museum director: photographs and testimonies of the time reveal a dignified-looking man, with a slight Iroquois accent, who was slow to anger and had a gift for putting strangers and associates at ease in conversation. Parker's influence in the museum world went beyond Indian affairs. He said (according to the introduction to his book Red Jacket: Seneca Chief) that a museum was "the university of the common man," and he viewed museums as places that could educate rather than simply dazzle their visitors. Some credited Parker with originating the idea of the museum as an educational institution, and the look of the modern historical museums, with its detailed, authentic three-dimensional displays and dioramas, owes something to Parker, who sweated over the details of such displays in Rochester. He instructed museum staff to base the painted backgrounds of displays on actual scenes from Iroquois lands, and the figures who inhabited his display villages were made from life masks of living Native Americans.

The job of museum director was a demanding one as Parker shepherded the Rochester Museum through funding hazards during the Depression and World War II eras. He led the museum in acquiring a massive collection of Iroquois artifacts that remains very important, and he also worked to further the efforts of contemporary Native American crafts-people, buying their works and becoming involved with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration to make sure that Native Americans received a fair share of the art projects sponsored by the government agency during those years. In the midst of all this, Parker found time to write several more books, including Skunny Wundy, an enduring collection of Seneca stories for children.

Later in life Parker received various honorary degrees, including an honorary master's degree in science from the University of Rochester in 1922, and honorary doctorates from Union College (in 1940) and Keuka College in 1945. A particularly significant honor for him was his ascent to the 33rd Degree level of the Order of Masons, an organization with which he remained closely involved for much of his life. Parker retired from the Rochester Museum in 1946, continued to write, and became active in a new pan-Indian organization, the National Congress of American Indians. He died on January 1, 1955, in Naples, New York, in a home he had built overlooking what he believed to be land where his ancestors had lived.


Notable Native Americans, Gale, 1995.

Parker, Arthur C., Skunny Wundy: Seneca Indian Tales, Syracuse University Press, 1994.

―――――, Red Jacket: Seneca Chief, University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

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


"Arthur C. Parker," Encyclopedia of the American Indian, (January 31, 2006).

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