Despite the pleasures of a three-day weekend, the second Monday in October has a highly contentious history. Although it was not celebrated at the federal level until 1934, the commemoration of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage became widespread at a time of intense anti-immigrant—particularly anti-Asian—sentiment. As historian Malinda Maynor Lowery put it, in the late 1800s, “it was widely popular to think about celebrating a European who played this important role in the establishment of Europe’s relationship with the United States.” However, for Native communities, the day was instead a painful reminder of what followed European colonial settlement: cultural erasure, forced assimilation, and tens of millions of deaths from violence and disease. In an effort to reclaim this federal holiday, the Center for Women’s History is exploring the life and work of Caroline Parker, Haudenosaunee artist.
During the 19th century, many non-Native people assumed that Native American nations were on their inevitable way to extinction. Non-Native collectors, ethnologists, anthropologists, and historians snatched up Native American artworks as “specimens” or “artefacts” to be displayed as static representations of “dying cultures” and “ideal types.” This was particularly true of women’s art, which was further undervalued and anonymized as “decorative” or “applied” art. This approach erased each artist’s individual mastery of techniques and materials, her lived experience, and the historical context of her community.
Mainstream audiences and cultural gatekeepers, steeped in Eurocentric thinking regarding “authenticity” versus “commodity,” valuing “art” over “craft,” and viewing individual genius in opposition to communal knowledge and collaboration, consistently paid scant attention to Indigenous women’s art. In fact, the very first major exhibition dedicated to the art of Native women was just recently held in the summer of 2019, when Hearts of Our People opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Despite this, the names of a few 19th-century Indigenous women artists survive, including that of Caroline Gahano Parker. She was born into the powerful Wolf clan in Tonawanda Seneca territory in the 1820s. Her family was well-connected among both Seneca and non-Native elites: Her father William had served in the War of 1812, and her mother Elizabeth was related to the chief Sose-há-wä and descended from the religious leader Handsome Lake. Her brother Ely would become a high-ranking Civil War officer and Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Ulysses S. Grant.
Through Ely, Caroline Parker met the non-Native anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in 1845. Just a few years later, Morgan embarked on an ambitious collecting project for the New York State Cabinet of Natural History, receiving appropriations totaling $465 from the State to assemble “the complete range of objects being made and used by members of Indian tribes within New York.” In 1849 and 1850, the Parker family worked with Morgan to curate about 500 objects for this collection, with Caroline specially commissioned to create a number of intricately beaded objects and items of clothing.
Caroline Parker’s invaluable contribution to Morgan’s project was one of many ways in which she mediated between her own culture and that of the settler colonists. Her art blended Western fashions with Seneca dress, and she rendered popular floral motifs in the three-dimensional raised style that distinguishes the work of many Haudenosaunee beadworkers. Parker also studied English and became active in the Baptist church. Like others in her family, Parker deployed her many skills in the Seneca’s decades-long fight to preserve their lands from federal, state, and private encroachment, and prevent their forced removal to Kansas.
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 made nearby Tonawanda land attractive to land speculators. In 1838, the first Treaty of Buffalo Creek stripped the Tonawanda of their land but was not ratified by the U.S. Senate. The 1842 Treaty of Buffalo Creek confirmed this land loss and was ratified by the Senate. A prolonged lobbying and legal campaign on the part of the Seneca led to yet another treaty, signed in 1857, which allowed the Tonawanda to purchase slightly more than half of their land back from the Ogden Lumber Company. Anthropologist Arthur C. Parker, who was Ely and Caroline Parker’s great-nephew, characterized the payment as “blood money.”
Their battle necessitated recruiting non-Native allies to contribute funds, provide publicity, and serve as legal representatives at a time when Indigenous people were not considered American citizens and could not be admitted to the bar. Images of Caroline’s exquisite beaded textiles and the carte-de-visite which captured her self-presentation as an “ideal Indian” woman, were widely distributed as one element in the Seneca’s campaign to recover their land and safeguard their treaty rights. Her artistry, piety, education, and dignity refuted common stereotypes of “primitive” and “uncivilized” Indigenous peoples.
Although the title sometimes given to her by the white press—”the Queen of the Senecas”—was highly inaccurate, Parker was a prominent member of the Tonawanda and Tuscarora communities throughout her life. In 1853, she was given the name Jigonsaseh, “Peace Woman,” which indicated her status as Head Clan Mother. Her 1864 marriage to the prosperous John Mountpleasant (Tuscarora) further increased her stature. As the New York Times noted, the Mountpleasant home “was a large, finely appointed house in the midst of the reservation, very picturesquely situated. It was one of the most complete museums of Indian relics and curiosities, and was visited by thousands of prominent American and noted English and foreign tourists,” some of whom bought her beadwork for their collections. After her husband’s death, a legal battle over his estate drained Parker’s resources.
However, the Seneca nation had, against long odds, succeeded in retaining some of their lands, including Parker’s home reservation, Tonawanda. The Seneca victory was a rare (if partial) victory in a dark time: The same late-19th century period that saw the widespread valorization of Columbus also saw a nadir in the government’s relations with Native American nations as federal policy shifted from forced removal to forced assimilation. First came the Indian Appropriations Act in 1871, which made Native Americans wards of the state. In 1879, the first residential “Indian school” was founded; these schools coerced students into giving up their native languages, religions, and cultures on pain of corporal punishment. The passage of the 1887 Dawes Act broke up tribal lands and impoverished tribal communities, and the Code of Indian Offenses in 1883 criminalized many aspects of tribal life, including ceremonial feasts, dances, marriage rites, and medical practices. Shortly after Caroline Parker died in 1892, historian Frederick Jackson Turner promulgated his influential “Frontier Thesis” at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, wherein he argued that the closure of the American frontier relegated Native Americans to the past. The recognition of Columbus in such a context meant “celebrating a person of European origin who made way for other Europeans,” which was, as Dr. Lowery writes, “particularly resonant throughout that time.”
Eighty years later, in the late 1970s, Indigenous activists inspired by the civil rights and Black Power movements began reframing Columbus Day. By 1992, many activists seized on the quincentennial of Columbus’s voyage as a forum for expressing their own views and honoring five centuries of Native resistance and resilience. The late 20th century saw an increasing number of states, municipalities, and school districts replace Columbus Day with a celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which recognizes the original inhabitants of the Americas and highlights their survival into the present day. (An important point since 87% of state and local curriculums do not teach Native American history after 1900). This same time period coincided with a revival of interest in Haudenosaunee beadwork and fashion, with the exhibition Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life traveling to several institutions in 1999-2002, From Buckskin to Bikinis: Haudenosaunee Wearable Art opening at the Iroquois Museum in 2015, and Treasures of Haudenosaunee Beadwork on display at the Rockwell Museum in 2020. And as Native fashion historian Dr. Jessica Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) points out, for many contemporary artists seeking to reference traditional Seneca clothing and designs, Caroline Parker remains “a source of continued inspiration” nearly 200 years after her birth.
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History
To learn more:
Caroline Gahano Parker Mountpleasant is featured in Women’s Voices, a multimedia digital interactive installation that can be found on the fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society.
For an oral history by Grant Jonathan, a contemporary Tuscarora beadworker, please visit the Iroquois Museum’s exhibition website “Treasured Traditions: A Statement of Place” and click on “A History in Layered Glass.”
The landmark exhibition, “Hearts of Our People,” (Minneapolis Institute of Art) was co-curated by artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa) and Jill Ahlberg Yohe with an advisory board of Native artists, curators, and scholars, included 117 objects in a wide variety of media, representing many different communities and geographic areas, and spanning 2,000 years. The exhibition catalog Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists [Minneapolis Institute of Art and the University of Washington Press, 2019 is an invaluable resource. I am particularly indebted to the curators’ introductory essays and “‘Encircles Everything’: A Transformative History of Native Women’s Arts” by Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips.
I am indebted to Deborah R. Holler, whose scholarship on Caroline Parker can be found in American Indian Art Magazine and Western New York Heritage.