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10/16/2012 5:00:00 PM
Inspiration Corner: 'Defeat with Victory'
Ely ParkerPhoto courtesy of defense.gov
Ely Parker

Photo courtesy of defense.gov
Barbara Steiner
Special to the Times

BLYTHE - As a nation there are stories that have inspired us. They have bound us together. Many of these stories are no longer told or known; yet they are very relevant today.

Defeat with Victory

When someone ignores you or thinks you are inferior, how do you feel? Numb, shut down, angry? How do you react when your goals are blocked by unfair decisions?

When I see someone stripped of opportunities, no matter how hard he has worked or how good his work is, I am frustrated and angry. A feeling for his or her's hurt squeezes my insides and I ask, "Why does such blind injustice exist? What can help?"

Ely Parker got many a raw deal. He became well acquainted with unfairness. Ely was a brilliant Seneca Indian living in the 1800s when Native Americans often were denied opportunity and respect. Nevertheless, throughout his life he was helpful to Indians and whites.

Consider some of his misery. For three years he worked in a law practice studying to become a lawyer. When he applied to take the examination to become a lawyer, he was informed, "No, you cannot take the law examination, because you are not an American citizen." At that time Indians were not recognized as citizens.

When the Civil War began he tried to form a regiment of Indian volunteers to fight on the Union side. The governor said, "Indians are not wanted in the New York Volunteers."

He was an excellent civil engineer and such skills were needed by the military. When he applied to join the military and use his skills to help the Union side, the Secretary of War told him, "The fight must be settled by the white men alone. Go home, cultivate your farm, and we will settle our troubles without any Indian aid."

At age 39 he married a young white woman from what was considered "high society" in Washington, D.C. Mixed marriage was usually not accepted socially. He and his wife were mistreated several times.

After the Civil War he was appointed head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He worked hard to stop dishonesty, which had become common in Bureau business. As he did so, he made many political enemies.

When there were food shortages on several reservations, he tried to stop a new Indian war by getting food quickly. War was prevented but he broke minor rules in making arrangements quickly. His enemies immediately accused him of corruption. With his reputation greatly damaged, he resigned from government service.

Next he went to Wall Street and made a fortune in stocks, but it was lost in the stock market crash of 1873. In and out of these difficulties, he had many achievements. At no time did he become a drop-out or a hater.

Ely became famous as a Seneca attorney, engineer and tribal diplomat. As a teenager he became an excellent speaker. By age 15 he was going to Washington, D.C. to represent his tribe concerning treaty disputes with the U.S. government.

When he was only 23, the Iroquois confederacy of six Indian tribes gave the highest award they had in recognition of his service. Later, through his friend General Ulysses S. Grant, he did join the military as an engineer. He became the only Native American to become a general on the Union side.

He wrote the final draft of surrender terms of the Civil War. After the war, when Grant became president, he appointed Ely to be Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the entire country. Throughout his life he had many friends who greatly respected his intelligence, charm and integrity. One such was the best man at his wedding, President Grant.

Ely survived major blows to his dreams and hard work. Being smart was not the only reason he achieved. His family encouraged him. Pride, honesty and friendships motivated him. He refused to deny who he could be.

This is Barbara Steiner with the story of Ely Parker. I remember hearing of his heroism when I was in elementary school. I found it unforgettable.


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