Arthur Caswell Parker (Gawaso Wanneh)

Image from American Indian Freemasonry (1919) by Arthur Caswell Parker:

Seneca Museologist, Archaeologist, and Folklorist

Arthur Caswell Parker (Gawaso Wanneh)

(1881– 1955)

Born on the Seneca tribe’s Cattaraugus Reservation in New York, Parker was descended from a long line of Seneca leaders on his father’s side but born of a white mother who was a missionary. Since Seneca clan membership is matrilineal, he was not considered Seneca until 1903, when the tribe recognized him as a rising authority on the traditions of the tribe and inducted him into membership in the nation with the name Gawaso Wanneh (Big Snowsnake). He was raised Christian yet his family also maintained connections to the traditional Seneca religion that Seneca prophet Handsome Lake had modernized. Later he was initiated into an Iroquois secret medicine society.

Parker’s family left the reservation and moved to White Plains, New York, where Parker went to school and graduated from high school in 1897. Although Parker continued to study many places, including the Centenary Collegiate Institute (NJ), and Dickinson Seminary (PA), he did not complete another degree. Instead, he gained an advanced education by visiting the American Museum of Natural History (NY), apprenticing himself to archaeologist Mark Harrington, and doing archaeological digs on the Cattaraugus Reservation and the Oyster Bay Indian mounds to learn archaeological skills. In the early 1900s, he was hired as a field ethnologist by the Peabody Museum and then as archeologist for both the New York State Library and the State Museum to collect Iroquois culture. In 1911, he co-founded and later became president of the Society for American Indians, a group advocating integration of Native people into American society while still maintaining Indian identities. In 1925, Parker became director of the Rochester Museum (now Rochester Museum of Arts & Sciences), retiring in 1946. During his tenure there, he guided the museum community into seeing museums as cultural education institutions rather than just dazzling spectacles, transformed displays about Native people from stereotypes into contextualized 3-D displays, and ensured the crafts of contemporary Native artists were bought by the museum. During the 1930s, he also advocated for Native artists to receive a fair share of government sponsored art projects and directed the WPA Indian Arts Project. Although he saw himself as a bridge to the mainstream community, he was criticized by many in his community for his collaborations and collecting efforts on behalf of mainstream institutions.

Parker was the first president of the American Archaeological Society, was awarded many honorary degrees, was a 33rd Degree Mason, and was an extremely prolific and acclaimed author. Among his many works pertaining to folklore are:

Iroquois Sun Myths (1910) published by AFS

Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants (1910)

Seneca Myths and Folktales (1923)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda