Caught in between Race and Museums

Arthur C. Parker was The New York State Museum's first Archeologist. 1

Recapturing Alcatraz got me to thinking about the constant pull between museums, and Native Peoples rights to historical artistic and ethnographic collections. The taking of Alcatraz in the 1960s makes me wonder about what could be argued as museums taking and holding of Native people’s sacred and cultural heritage. I know we have aa large collection but we present it as Art, collected as and presented as such. I began hunting around for similar collections and was led to the Rochester Museum and Science Center, which has an amazingly rich native American Indian ethnographic collection. Many of these works can be accessed via an online database.

The extensive Iroquois collections are the work of Arthur. C. Parker, who in many ways, laid claim to Native American identity through the preservation of their material culture, and blazing a path for natural history studies.

Parker was a fascinating man. He was the son of a Seneca man and a Caucasian missionary. His Great Uncle was Ely Parker, Secretary to Ulysses S. Grant, an engineer, politician, and spokesman for the Seneca people and eventually the fist American Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs. A controversial historical figure, he can be seen fighting for the rights of his people, but also was trained in white schools and colleges, eventually married a white Washington socialite and the mouth piece for Washington during the Grant administration.2

Parker was an equally interesting and controversial figure. He had close ties to Christianity ad Handsome Lake.  He moved in both Seneca and white worlds and was never fully accepted in either. He was the first Archeologist for the State Museum and compiled the collections in Rochester but many would say he encouraged assimilation and he has ties to Eugenics. But as a man caught in a world of Museums, race and material culture I think everyone owes him a great debt. He  was passionate about documenting his own history. He was passionate about understanding the past and wanted to share that knowledge with others. He walked in two worlds and followed his beliefs.

His works of documenting Iroquois culture and laying the ground for exhibitions, and preservation are beyond question. His skirting two cultures is in question but I wonder if by assuring that objects and items of his own culture were being preserved, did he not achieve more than young college activists that held Alcatrazfor a year?  Or did he just turn his people’s history over to the dominant culture?

I think Parker’s professional life could inform what we do in the history field. Especially for those of us tasked with taking on the job of interpreting aspects of history that are not our own.

1. “History of The New York State Museum” http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/history/html/faces-scientists.html

2. “The Biography of Ely Parker” http://www.pbs.org/warrior/content/bio/ely.html

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