March 13, 2019


Ulysses Grant's Forgotten Fight for Native American Rights (MARY STOCKWELL, JANUARY 7, 2019, What it Means to be American)

The man elected president in 1868--Ulysses S. Grant--was determined to change the way many of his fellow Americans understood citizenship. As he saw it, anyone could become an American, not just people like himself who could trace their ancestry back eight generations to Puritan New England. Grant maintained that the millions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants pouring into the country should be welcomed as American citizens, as should the men, women, and children just set free from slavery during the Civil War. And, at a time when many in the press and public alike called for the extermination of the Indians, he believed every Indian from every tribe should be made a citizen of the United States, too. [...]

Calling American Indians the "original occupants of the land," he promised to pursue any course of action that would lead to their "ultimate citizenship." It was not an idle promise.

That President Grant chose Ely Parker as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs was no surprise to anyone who knew Parker. A descendant of the renowned Seneca chiefs Red Jacket and Handsome Lake, he had been marked for greatness even before birth, when his pregnant mother had dreamt of a rainbow stretching from Tonawanda to the farm of the tribe's Indian agent, which, according to the tribe's dream interpreters, meant that her child would be a peacemaker between his people and the whites.

Parker mastered English in local academies, both on and off the Tonawanda Reserve, and became an avid reader. In 1846, when just 18 years old, he became the official spokesman of his people, who were fighting the U.S. government's efforts to remove them from Tonawanda. He soon traveled with the tribe's leaders to Washington, where he impressed the nation's top politicians, including President James K. Polk. It would take 11 more years of negotiating with the government for Parker to win the right of his people to stay in their ancestral home. During those years, he studied law and even helped argue a case in the Supreme Court on behalf of his tribe, but he was unable to take the bar exam because he was an Indian, so he became an engineer instead. He was overseeing the construction of a customhouse and marine hospital in Galena when he met Ulysses Grant.

When the Civil War broke out, Parker returned to New York and tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Union Army. Finally, with the help of his friend Grant, who was no longer a failure, but instead a renowned general on the brink of defeating the Confederates at Vicksburg, Parker won an appointment as a military secretary. He first served General John Smith and later Grant himself. From Chattanooga to Appomattox, Parker always could be seen at Grant's side, usually carrying a stack of papers and with an ink bottle tied to a button on his coat. When Lee finally surrendered, it was Ely Parker who wrote down the terms.

The friendship between Grant and Parker strengthened after Grant was appointed General of the Army, a position he held from 1865 to 1869. During these years, Grant often sent Parker, now an adjutant general, to meet with tribes in the Indian Territory and farther west in Montana and Wyoming. Parker listened as tribal leaders described how their country was being overrun by miners, cattlemen, railroad workers, farmers, immigrants from Europe, and freedmen from the South.

Parker reported everything back to Grant and together they worked out the details of a policy with the main goal of citizenship for the Indians. The army would protect Indians on their reservations as they transitioned from their old ways and entered the mainstream of American life, learning how to support themselves through new livelihoods like farming or ranching. It might take a generation or two, but eventually Indians would be able to vote, own businesses, and rely on the protections guaranteed to them in the Constitution.

As president, Grant made Parker his Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Parker began working to implement the president's plans, appointing dozens of army officers to oversee the superintendencies, agencies, and reservations in the West. Grant and Parker were so certain of the wisdom of their policy that they failed to see how many people opposed it. Congressmen, who had previously rewarded their supporters with jobs in the Indian service, resented the fact that Grant had taken away these plum positions. Many Americans, especially in the West, complained that the president sided with the Indians rather than with his own countrymen.

Posted by at March 13, 2019 12:08 AM