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One Real American: The Life of Ely S. Parker, Seneca Sachem and Civil War General

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Children’s book icon Joseph Bruchac tells the fascinating story of a Seneca (Iroquois) Civil War officer
Ely S. Parker (1828–1895) is one of the most unique but little-known figures in US history. A member of the Seneca (Iroquois) Nation, Parker was an attorney, engineer, and tribal diplomat. Raised on a reservation but schooled at a Catholic institution, he learned English at a young age and became an interpreter for his people. During the American Civil War, he was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel and was the primary draftsman of the terms of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. He eventually became President Grant’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that post. Award-winning children’s book author and Native American scholar Joseph Bruchac provides an expertly researched, intimate look at a man who achieved great success in two worlds yet was caught between them. Includes archival photos, maps, endnotes, bibliography, and timeline.

208 pages, Hardcover

Published October 27, 2020

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About the author

Joseph Bruchac

269 books491 followers
Joseph Bruchac lives with his wife, Carol, in the Adirondack mountain foothills town of Greenfield Center, New York, in the same house where his maternal grandparents raised him. Much of his writing draws on that land and his Abenaki ancestry. Although his American Indian heritage is only one part of an ethnic background that includes Slovak and English blood, those Native roots are the ones by which he has been most nourished. He, his younger sister Margaret, and his two grown sons, James and Jesse, continue to work extensively in projects involving the preservation of Abenaki culture, language and traditional Native skills, including performing traditional and contemporary Abenaki music with the Dawnland Singers.

He holds a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing from Syracuse and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the Union Institute of Ohio. His work as a educator includes eight years of directing a college program for Skidmore College inside a maximum security prison. With his wife, Carol, he is the founder and Co-Director of the Greenfield Review Literary Center and The Greenfield Review Press. He has edited a number of highly praised anthologies of contemporary poetry and fiction, including Songs from this Earth on Turtle's Back, Breaking Silence (winner of an American Book Award) and Returning the Gift. His poems, articles and stories have appeared in over 500 publications, from American Poetry Review, Cricket and Aboriginal Voices to National Geographic, Parabola and Smithsonian Magazine. He has authored more than 70 books for adults and children, including The First Strawberries, Keepers of the Earth (co-authored with Michael Caduto), Tell Me a Tale, When the Chenoo Howls (co-authored with his son, James), his autobiography Bowman's Store and such novels as Dawn Land, The Waters Between, Arrow Over the Door and The Heart of a Chief. Forthcoming titles include Squanto's Journey (Harcourt), a picture book, Sacajawea (Harcourt), an historical novel, Crazy Horse's Vision (Lee & Low), a picture book, and Pushing Up The Sky (Dial), a collection of plays for children. His honors include a Rockefeller Humanities fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship for Poetry, the Cherokee Nation Prose Award, the Knickerbocker Award, the Hope S. Dean Award for Notable Achievement in Children's Literature and both the 1998 Writer of the Year Award and the 1998 Storyteller of the Year Award from the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. In 1999, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.

As a professional teller of the traditional tales of the Adirondacks and the Native peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands, Joe Bruchac has performed widely in Europe and throughout the United States from Florida to Hawaii and has been featured at such events as the British Storytelling Festival and the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. He has been a storyteller-in-residence for Native American organizations and schools throughout the continent, including the Institute of Alaska Native Arts and the Onondaga Nation School. He discusses Native culture and his books and does storytelling programs at dozens of elementary and secondary schools each year as a visiting author.

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5 stars
12 (22%)
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22 (40%)
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17 (31%)
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Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for Halli.
150 reviews
December 20, 2021
Enjoyed reading this book about a member of my family. I learned a ton not only about Ely but also about my Parker roots. I had grown up hearing about Do-ne-ho-ga-wa and growing up would look for him in history books along with Red Jacket. Regardless of how "blood" is recognized through the Haudenosaunee confederacy, I'm proud to be a descendent of this family. Joseph Bruchac is an amazing storyteller and I'm thankful for his gift many times over.
2,298 reviews
March 23, 2021
Part of the six Nations of the Iroquois, Parker studied English early in his life. When Parker was just a teen, he accompanied chiefs to Albany and Washington as a translator, becoming comfortable in various settings. He represented his people in this way throughout his life.
Not permitted citizenship, Native Americans were not allowed to enlist at the beginning of the Civil War. Parker's work as a civil engineer earned him a place on General Grant's staff, as he had met him back in Galena. Present at Lee's surrender to Grant, Parker was the one who transcribed the surrender papers in ink.
He served as commissioner of Indian Affairs in Grant's administration. In his last years, Parker suffered financial reversals, but was still greatly respected by the community around him.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
3,035 reviews5 followers
April 27, 2021
Thoroughly researched and well written! A piece of history we don't hear enough about. Lots of photos of all the major players appear throughout the book.
Profile Image for Mia | The Bookish Feminist.
43 reviews6 followers
July 13, 2020
Formidable author Joseph Bruchac has pulled off an extraordinary feat with "One Real American." Bruchac presents an immense amount of historical research, fact, and sources in this concise book that I hope will be used by schools as a supplement to the often white-washed version of history most youth are exposed to. While it might be easy to get bogged down in the detailed facts (this was always my struggle with history books), Bruchac does a great job of articulating what the takeaway is from all of the sections he write about, which was really helpful, even for me as an adult reader!

I love the emphasis Bruchac places on ensuring that the reader knows that Parker truly walked in two worlds. There were challenges to this, but also great pride. Other documents and stories about Parker seem to focus on his "Americanness," telling about his military accomplishments and perhaps delving into his education. But what often gets left out is that he also remained firmly rooted in his Seneca community. He was an engineer, attorney, diplomat, and officer in the U.S. Army, and none of that was at odds with his trial affiliation and identity. I think this is imperative for non-Indigenous and Indigenous youth alike to recognize and understand. Our country has not often focused on retained, resilient, deep connections to non-white communities, but that does a great disservice to our youth. By being able to see the accomplishments, communities, and connections Parker made and retained, we are able to focus not just on his role as a military officer but also on the ways in which he supported and was informed by his own community.

It was also interesting to see how Bruchac addresses the perception of Parker from within his community, the ways he defended Native peoples, and also some of the challenges that stemmed from the work he did with the Army. This was expertly written, had a nice balance of heavily historical facts with some narrative highlights mixed in so the reader can really track and synthesize all of that information, and also has a very helpful timeline at the end to guide how we read the text.

I will continue to refer to this book! I can see it being used throughout the country in schools; I know I can't wait to share it with my kids when they're a little older. I will definitely be gifting this to some of the older elementary and middle-school-aged kiddos in my life, as I think this is a great way to revise the focus and representation in American history. I'm so glad I got the chance to read "One Real American." Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for this advance e-copy!
Profile Image for Barbara.
13.1k reviews271 followers
December 22, 2020
This one is a 3.5 for me, and I was excited to learn more about someone with whom I was unfamiliar. Readers will be intrigued by the story of this groundbreaking man whose life straddled two very different cultures. Because the book opens with the presence of Ely S. Parker at the conclusion of the Civil War when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, readers will understand immediately that this man had an important role in the nation's history. It only remains for the rest of the book to amplify that role and trace his beginnings to that particular point and beyond. Born to an important Seneca (Iroquois) family in New York, Parker chose to attend a mission school and later an academy where he received free tuition and learned to master the English language. At a tender age, he served as an interpreter and go-between for his people, even travelling to Washington, DC, at their behest in order to save the Tonawanda Reservation. He studied law, became an engineer, and gained some important white allies while being chosen as Grand Sachem at 23. Eventually, he begins a military career and is assigned as part of Grant's staff. His is an inspiring story, and author Joseph Bruchac relates it well, covering his triumphs as well as the disappointments and racism that he faced. Sadly, he was often plagued by rumors of dishonesty and alcoholism although there is no evidence of either one. The book blends personal and professional moments deftly, but it also leaves readers wondering about how distant Parker seemed to be from his origins and the places where he grew up when he died. The book contains several photographs and some of his own writings. For anyone interested in learning about someone whose story has been omitted from history books, this book will be worthwhile, raising as many questions as it answers.
Profile Image for Katie.
563 reviews30 followers
November 9, 2022
"One Real American" is a fascinating book about a man I admit I had never even heard of. I thought the author did an excellent job writing about Ely's life with a balance of 21st century perspective while still acknowledging the views of the time. Bruhac also placed Ely within the historical narrative of 19th century America with great care. My one criticism would be that this reads more like a YA book than a MG book. There's a lot of assumed background knowledge that a middle-grader won't have, even if they've learned some American history. And there's more detail and length than the average middle-grader is ready for. But for advanced readers interested in American history, I can't recommend this book highly enough.
Profile Image for Alicia.
5,868 reviews118 followers
February 20, 2023
Bruchac is a local Indigenous author and I saw that this was in our library, a biography of a man who lived the two lives of being Indigenous but also a war hero and the connections he made along the way interacting with figures from history and navigating the politics and abuses.

The short biography includes plenty of photos, maps, and illustrations to provide the visuals of people from the past and how the impact of the Haudenosaunee- the Iroquois Confederacy-- affected the understanding of Native Americans and their contributions. What a life.
112 reviews1 follower
December 7, 2020
This is what juvenile nonfiction should be! - sociological nuanced, comprehensive, and exquisitely contextualized

I planned to skim this book rather than read it, since my children are grown and I'm merely a substitute teacher, but Joseph Bruchac completely drew me in. I should not be surprised as his authorial talents are well-known and highly regarded.

I sincerely hope that an elementary version is in the offing...
Profile Image for T.
764 reviews8 followers
November 26, 2022
HOW did I not know about this man prior to reading this book? I lived in ancestral Onondaga territory for 2 years in high school. I majored in history in college for crying out loud.

Did you know that a Native American man wrote the terms of surrender that were presented to Lee at Appomattox? NEITHER DID I AND NOW WE BOTH KNOW.
440 reviews1 follower
December 4, 2020
This guy's story is fascinating, and I had never, ever heard it, or of it, before. It doesn't hurt that Bruchac is a great author. Highly recommend, especially for kids who like biographies or who want to learn more about the Civil War or Native Americans.
Profile Image for Jennybeast.
3,450 reviews12 followers
January 5, 2022
Really excellent and in-depth biography of Ely Parker, a highly influential leader who advocated for Iroquois Nation tribes in the timeline surrounding the Civil War. He was a fascinating character -- both in his massive achievements and in his interests.
Profile Image for Kathy.
2,993 reviews7 followers
March 17, 2022
An amazing man. Just about everybody who met him liked him and was impressed with him, despite the rampant anti-Indian racism of the time. Unlike many histories, this actually centers the various strategies Natives used to try and deal with the tide of Europeans and then Americans.
Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews

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