Ha-sa-no-an-da, or Ely Parker as he would be known, learned to bridge worlds from a young age. He was born into a Seneca Nation Native American family in 1828, and while raised in the tribe, his parents chose a Baptist Mission School for Ely’s education. There he learned English and engaged with people outside of his Native American community.
This experience allowed Ely to take on important roles within his tribe. The tribe elders selected him to become a translator, interpreter, and scribe for meetings with U.S. government leaders. Ely was just fourteen years old at the time.
As he grew into the beginnings of adulthood, Ely chose engineering as a profession, studying the discipline at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. From college, he went to work as an engineer, where among many projects he would work on, Ely helped improve and maintain the Erie Canal and was sent to Galena, Illinois, for government projects there. In Galena, Ely met and befriended Ulysses Grant.
The friendship with Ulysses also blossomed into several working relationships. During the U.S. Civil War, Ely attempted to join the Union Army as an engineer but was rejected for being a Native American. Ely reached out to Ulysses, who helped Ely enlist.
Starting as a captain, Ely rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. And as the war came to an end and the surrender terms for the South needed to be drafted, it was Ely who helped write the documents.
In later years, Ulysses Grant, now President of the U.S., appointed Ely as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold this title.
Ely faced much adversity throughout his life. He persevered through each obstacle, taking defeats as opportunities for learning and growth. And through it all, he never wanted to talk about his accomplishments.
“A snapshot biography of Ely Parker” sources: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War Personalities and Scenes, National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_S._Parker