Reviving interest in indigenous languages and traditions with the help of Ely Samuel Parker

11 October 2016

Learning that the annual international conference held by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums, (ATALM) is taking place this week in Phoenix, Arizona, I thought it a fitting time to highlight a sample of the material collated within our recently published resource: Frontier Life: Borderland Settlement & Colonial Encounters, that demonstrate attempts made over 100 years ago to restore both indigenous languages and histories. 

With photographs depicting robes inscribed with the Life Story of Bull’s Head, chief of the Sarcee Indians, and Eric Fraine’s Origin of the Word Blackfeet, this resource offers no shortage of documents revealing the various ways in which individuals strove to record and honour indigenous languages and traditions during the expansion of western frontiers.

A personal favourite would have to be Ely Samuel Parker’s rendition of the Seneca Myth of Creation in which “a beautiful fairy became betrothed & united in wedlock to a young brave”. As the story goes, their initial marital happiness becomes jeopardised by the fairy’s pregnancy as she becomes unable to travel at pace with her husband. Parker records how, considering his wife a burden, the Indian chief “shoved her into the cavity that had been made by the roots of the fallen tree”. Luckily for the fairy, within the tree there existed a strange subterranean world, where there lived an otter, a beaver, a tortoise, a muskrat, and “a large quantity of ducks” who help her give birth and survive her ordeal.

Ely Samuel Parker's letter to W.H.C. Hosmer concerning myth of creation in Indian tradition © The American Philosophical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Intrigued? I certainly was. But if dystopian worlds and magical creatures weren’t enough to spark an interest in indigenous traditions and tales, the life story of the Seneca chief narrating them cannot fail to do so. Whilst first working as an interpreter and diplomat for the Seneca peoples, negotiating land cessions, sales and treaty rights, Ely Samuel Parker found himself in the perfect position to observe and foster his personal interests in ethnology. Having the honorary title of Sachem bestowed upon him in recognition of his services to his people, Parker eventually found himself able to influence and tackle the injustices suffered by indigenous peoples, particularly the dissolution of indigenous languages. 

Photograph of Ely Samuel Parker © The American Philosophical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Sourced from the American Philosophical Society, the Ely Samuel Parker Papers offer a diverse array of correspondence, speeches, and notebooks that document Parker’s private and public efforts to sustain and restore indigenous cultures, histories, and languages which had been placed under threat by expanding western borders and the subsequent influx of European settlers in America. In addition to reproducing imaginative indigenous mythology, Parker’s address to the New York Historical Society in 1847 serves to exemplify his active attempts to seek redress for the Iroquois Indians he felt had been left no “share in your history”. Such efforts are also evident within his personal correspondence, whether arguing to have English names “manufactured into Indian” when new factories were constructed in New York during October, 1846, or providing “a vocabulary of Seneca name and words” for Mrs Harriet M. Converse to use in her own historical account of his people.

His support of missionary Asher Wright, actually enabled Wright to complete several volumes recording the Seneca’s complex verb subjugations, phonetic expressions, as well as grammatical rules and spellings which today give us a rare glimpse into language characteristics of indigenous peoples.

Asher Wright linguistic exercises of Seneca verbs, Part 3 © The American Philosophical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

However, despite such efforts Parker acknowledged over a year later in his notes on Seneca and Wyandot tradition that, “It is true that the Indians preserve the recollection of many important and interesting events in their early history, but the difficulty with which they communicate throws a great obstacle in the way of preserving by record the traditions and legends that are still intact”. Sadly, this statement seems as accurate and reflective of today’s society as it was in Parker’s own, as one of the main summit topics of this year’s ATALM conference is continuing to tackle “issues relating to language preservation, digital inclusion, and reputation”.

The Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters is now available. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Open access to the clickable documents featured in this blog will be available for 30 days.


Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Rebecca Baxter

Rebecca Baxter

Since joining Adam Matthew's editorial team in June 2015 I have had the opportunity to work on a range of interesting projects, including ‘Colonial America' and 'Frontier Life: Borderland Settlement & Colonial Encounters'. My own personal and academic interests lie in eighteenth century fiction and travel writing.

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