Rick Hill

Rick W. Hill Sr. is Tuscarora of the Beaver clan. He is the former Special Assistant to the Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. He is a professor of American History, an artist, photographer, and a leading authority on contemporary Native American art and Indian images depicted in multi-media. Hill was the Museum Director and principle designer of the new Institute of American Indian Arts, and Museum Director for the Native American Center for the Living Arts

    "I was about 23 years old when I first heard about Ely Parker. I was working as a research assistant at the Buffalo Historical Society. And I was just leafing through a book, and all of a sudden, here was this picture of this Seneca man, in a suit coat, and the caption said, General Parker. So it kind of intrigued me, as to who this fellow was. I remember going out to Tonawanda. There was this old plaque out there that talked about the old homestead of General Parker. So I just started reading about him. Asked a few questions. I was surprised at how little people knew about him, back home, anywhere across the Six Nations. Those who did know about him didn't have much good to say about him. He was considered kind of a sell-out. That he turned his back on his people and left. And even though there are Parkers there today, there wasn't much of a legacy there. And that intrigued me too, as to why. What did he do that was so bad? As I began to look into it, he was fascinating to me because you know on one hand he's held up as a hero...in the white man's eyes. But in the Indian eyes, they're looking at him like, we're not quite sure about this fellow.

    Parker and I run a parallel track. I worked in Washington for 2 years, he worked in Washington for 2 years. Kind of bouncing back and forth between Buffalo, Washington, Albany, NY. He did all of that. Working in many ways on the very same issues...they're still there. So I can identify very strongly with him. But there is a point where our lives go very parallel and then they go in opposite directions and that's the regret that I have. In that he didn't succeed in some of those areas where I wish he would have.

    He believed in education. He was an engineer. Back then many of our people wanted to be recognized. I think Parker was trying to say, hey, we're just as good as you in all of these steps. I can become an officer in the Civil War, I can do all these things just as well as the white man. And in many ways, that's the motivation in my life, is to prove that we can do things. So people will respect our ability to get things done. And once they respect our ability to get things done, maybe then they'll start looking at our personalities and begin to respect us for who we are rather than what we represent. But I think it's hard to come from a humble community, a place where they don't believe that certain things are necessary to get through life, and all of a sudden you're being wined and dined in this other community all the time, with the power brokers. And they expect you to do certain things, wear a suit and tie, marry a non-Indian, whatever it is, there's an expectation they bring. And some of our people like Parker have said, okay, I'm going to do that for the sake of our people. But in the end you get further and further away, because we have to defend ourselves through powerful words, through other ways of thinking. And the problem is that these other ways of thinking and these powerful words are very seductive. They keep pulling at you all the time, because along with those comes a style of living, a way of life and thinking that sometimes rubs up against what we really want to be.

    I think Ely Parker truly believed that by going to Washington that he could provide a benefit to his people. And he worked very hard and was doing some good stuff. But you have to remember the three words that stick in my mind, are what he said about Indians, he said we have to humanize, civilize, and Christianize the Indians. And that was no different from what everybody else was saying at the time, and I believe that's where the seduction took place. That he really believed that tradition would no longer save the Indians from their fate. Because their fate was now being determined by those who were humanized, Christianized, and civilized. So he's saying, let's be a part of that to save ourselves. I really believe that Parker failed because he forgot where he came from. He forgot what he was about. The things that made him who he was when he was a kid no longer made him what he was when he was older.

    I think on one hand, it's legitimate to say, yes he was a traitor, because there was a betrayal to his people. And not only about tradition and custom, but the whole idea about what idea did he have for the future. On the other hand I think of those people saying, well, at least he was trying, he tried to blend these two worlds together, and isn't there a lesson in there that we should pursue? I'm saying, yes, both of these are true. Yes, we have to understand what we're fighting for. 'Cause guess what, we still have to go to Washington, still got to deal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Still got to deal with schools. All of those same issues that faced Parker, we still face. Which is a sad legacy when you think about it -- that we haven't addressed some of those very basic things. If anything, maybe it's gotten worse.

    When I saw the picture of Parker just before he died, old gray-haired man, like I'm starting to look like, I was thinking about that. When he was a young man, when I was 23 and he was 23, and now I'm my age, and he got older, I see that transition. You can become a very bitter person because of all the failures of all of the Indians around you...you keep thinking, why are we working so hard when everything's falling apart all the time? Or you can begin to say, "I didn't do my job. I didn't do my share." You're ashamed of yourself more than you are embarrassed by your failure. I saw that when I looked at this old man...said here is a guy with a broken heart. I couldn't believe it, one little picture and I said, what happened to this man? This great man who was a General, you know, a Seneca chief. What happened that he becomes this old man? And when I read the details of his later life, I'm glad I read that when I was that young. 'Cause it was a good warning to me, Rick watch out, it's a minefield that you're wandering through. If you're not careful, you're going to be just like that old man. And I've got to work hard not to make that happen."