Appomattox, 1865. A clock slowly ticks, and the scratch of a pen is the loudest sound besides Lee and Grant's small talk. History has a joker up its sleeve, the first of many in Grant's Indian, as the scribe copying the surrender spills the ink and blots the paper. "Parker, you'll have to do this," he says, and a Seneca Indian steps in and copies all the letters in a big, round hand. Based on the real life of Ely Parker, the Indian, Grant's Indian pivots at Appomattox, then loops back to Parker's adventures as an Indian boy in upstate New York, his youth as tribal translator and diplomat in Washington and his career as a U.S. engineer, which leads to his meeting "Useless" Ulysses Grant in a barroom brawl in Galena, Illinois. After Appomattox, Parker travels with the western Sioux, marries a white girl half his age, becomes commissioner of Indian affairs, resigns in disgrace, makes and loses a fortune on Wall Street and spends his last twenty years as a clerk in the New York City Police Department. Parker is an American Indian becoming an American, wearing "Janus masks, one looking inward and one outward, one forward and one back, the two occasionally catching a mutual glimpse and staring like an ape at its own reflection." His quest gets him into all sorts of trouble, including his comic-opera wedding, which he misses once by getting drunk and throwing himself into the Potomac. He dons successive careers, ultimately succeeding inwardly (while his outer success fades) through his young wife's urging him not to be an Indian or a white, "Just be a man!"
Parker's journey follows the grand sweep of the 19th century:
- From Dolley Madison to Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt;
- From the Mexican War to the Civil War to Custer and Crazy Horse;
- From the woodland Seneca to the western Sioux to Mohawk iron workers on the Brooklyn Bridge.