Reviving interest in indigenous languages and traditions with the help of Ely Samuel Parker
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 Bullâs Head, chief of the Sarcee Indians, and Eric Fraineâs 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 Parkerâs rendition of the Seneca Myth of Creation in which âa beautiful fairy became betrothed & united in wedlock to a young braveâ. As the story goes, their initial marital happiness becomes jeopardised by the fairyâs pregnancy as she becomes unable to travel at pace with her husband. Parker records how, considering his wife a burden, the Indian chief âshoved her into the cavity that had been made by the roots of the fallen treeâ. 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 âa large quantity of ducksâ who help her give birth and survive her ordeal.
Intrigued? I certainly was. But if dystopian worlds and magical creatures werenât 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.
Sourced from the American Philosophical Society, the Ely Samuel Parker Papers offer a diverse array of correspondence, speeches, and notebooks that document Parkerâs 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, Parkerâs 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 âshare in your historyâ. Such efforts are also evident within his personal correspondence, whether arguing to have English names âmanufactured into Indianâ when new factories were constructed in New York during October, 1846, or providing âa vocabulary of Seneca name and wordsâ 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 Senecaâs 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.
However, despite such efforts Parker acknowledged over a year later in his notes on Seneca and Wyandot tradition that, âIt 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 intactâ. Sadly, this statement seems as accurate and reflective of todayâs society as it was in Parkerâs own, as one of the main summit topics of this yearâs ATALM conference is continuing to tackle âissues relating to language preservation, digital inclusion, and reputationâ.
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