The Story of Donehogawa, First Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs
The election of Ulysses S. Grant in1868 brought about what seemed for a time, an epochal change in the Office of Indian Affairs, although, at first, it did not get off to a good start.
Grant was aware of the pervasive corruption within the Office of Indian Affairs. His initial way of dealing with this was to replace all Indian Agents with military men whom he felt would be immune from the system of political spoils.
On January 23, 1870, Major Eugene M. Baker led a detachment of U.S. Army cavalry out of Fort Ellis, Montana after a band of Piegan Blackfeet who had been stealing horses. A band of Blackfeet were surrounded along the Marias River and massacred.
“Of the 219 Piegans in camp, only 46 escaped to tell the story; 33 men, 90 women, and 50 children were shot to death as they ran from their lodges,” reports “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown.
A cover-up was ensued by the Army until about three months later when a Lieutenant William B. Pease, acting agent for the Blackfeet, risked his career by releasing all the facts surrounding this to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, including the fact that all this was brought about by the theft of only a couple of mules from a wagon freighter.
By the time news of this atrocity reached the Office of Indian Affairs, the new Commissioner was not a white man, but a full-blooded Iroquois, by the name of Donehogawa, “Keeper of the Western Door of the Long House of the Iroquois.” His English name was Ely Samuel Parker.
In his youth, working as a stable boy at an Army post, Parker endured racism and harassment over his poor command of the English language. He enrolled himself at a missionary school where he developed an excellent command of language and began working for a New York law firm where his goal was to become a lawyer, which he thought was the most suitable profession in which he could help his people.
After a successful three years with the law firm he applied for admission to the bar. He was refused—Indians not wanted. This did not dampen Donehogawa’s determination. He researched what white profession he could pursue without encountering a closed door and found engineering the way to go. He entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and not only mastered, but excelled at all courses in civil engineering. His first job was working on the Erie Canal. By the time he was 29 the United States government enlisted him to supervise the construction of levees and buildings. In 1860 he found himself working in Galena, Illinois where he met and became friends with a disgraced and former Army captain by the name of Ulysses S. Grant who was working in his father’s tannery.
In 1861, when the Civil War began, Parker returned to New York to raise a regiment of Iroquois Indians to fight for the Union, but was turned down by the Governor. Parker then unsuccessfully tried to enter the Union as an engineer and was again refused because of his race. He was told this was a “white man’s war” and “go home, cultivate your farm, and we will settle our troubles without any Indian aid.”
The government refusals did not stop Parker, he let his friend Grant know of the denials. Grant sorely needed engineers and after episodes of red tape with the Union Army, Grant sent orders for his Indian friend to join him in the Vicksburg campaign. Lieutenant Colonel Ely Samuel Parker would remain a close aid to Grant through the Vicksburg campaign, Chattanooga, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, the siege of Petersburg, and finally at Appomattox.
When Robert E. Lee met Grant at the McLean Court House in Appomattox to negotiate the terms of surrender of the Confederacy, both were seated with a group of Union officers overseeing the important surrender event. When General Grant finished the handwritten surrender document he called his senior adjutant to re-copy the letter, but the adjutant said, “too nervous.” Grant then called Colonel Parker to look it over and re-copy it. Parker’s excellent handwriting spelled out the terms of peace for the bloodiest war in America’s history. It seems rather ironic, that Parker, an Indian, should find himself at the vortex of this Great War among the whites.
After all was said, signed, and agreed upon, there was a hand shaking ceremony. As Lee was going down the line and greeting the Union officers, he came to the Indian, Colonel Parker and hesitated. Parker later said, “After Lee had stared at me for a moment, he extended his hand and said, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’ I shook his hand and said, ‘we are all Americans.” This is reported in “To Appomattox” by Burke Davis.
Back to the massacre in Montana of 1870 of the Piegan Blackfeet—when Donehogawa learned of this, he called for an investigation. As a result, the military appointees as Indian Agents were eliminated and a new policy of appointing religious leaders as agents became known as the “Quaker policy” or “peace policy” for the Indians.
Grant’s new “peace policy” became a three-legged stool. The first leg was a Commissioner of Indian Affairs that was an Indian, Ely Parker (Donehogawa), the second, Indian Agents were appointed by recommendations made by religious bodies such as Whipple’s Episcopalians. The third leg was an independent Board of Commissioners for Indian Affairs that would advise the Office of Indian affairs on policy, oversee individual agencies, and audit financial matters. Donehogawa suggested that this board be made up of whites and Indians but no Indians with political clout could be found so it was made up of only whites. The board members were to be unpaid and all were prominent wealthy members of society. The first elected President of the board was William Welsh, a close confidant and fellow Episcopalian of Bishop Whipple.
From Minnesota to the Pacific, things were at peace and seemed almost too good to be true for the Indian; an Indian Commissioner, seemingly the elimination of the corrupt political appointee system of agents, and an independent board to oversee the administration of the Office of Indian Affairs. But as the saying goes, “if it’s too good to be true, it is.” By the spring of 1870 there were rumors reaching Washington of unrest among the plains Indians. Some of the most worrisome news came from the dissatisfaction on the part of the great Oglala Chief, Red Cloud.
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