Paddling Upstream

Alvin Josephy passed away almost two decades ago, but time and again, during this coronavirus/Black Lives crisis, I have heard him shout in my ear that when our history books don’t lie about Indians, they ignore them.

When the NYT sends a reporter to the Navajo Nation to document the terrible impact of Covid-19 on the people, the world reads and sighs—and then the story goes to the back pages or to no page at all. When George Floyd is killed by police in Minneapolis, and Indigenous singers and jingle dancers from many tribes go to the site of the killing to pay homage and honor the man, a video from Indian participants sneaks out on Facebook. Indians and their tribute are barely visible in the national press.

When people come into the Josephy Center where I work and get the first pages of the Nez Perce story—the one about Wallowa lands left to the Joseph Band of the Nez Perce by solemn US Treaty in 1855, and then snatched away from them in an 1863 treaty after the discovery of gold—they shake their heads, maybe pick up a book about the Nez Perce, and go their ways. This story of past injustice gets told and retold more often than most Indian stories, but the fact that Nez Perce and other tribal people are still here is not part of the current American story.

Sometimes I feel like I am paddling upstream—and then I think of the years that Alvin labored to tell the Indian side of history, and think it’s a wonder that he kept at it so long and so hard.

When Alvin found the Nez Perce story in 1951, it captured his mind and soul. But he was working at Time Magazine, where publisher Henry Luce thought modern Indians “phonies” who should just get on with being Americans. Time editors followed Luce’s lead, and Alvin worked on his first two Indian books, Patriot Chiefs and The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, without support or encouragement from Time.

When he published Patriot Chiefs, in 1961, Indians—many of whom had fought for the United States in WW II, thanked him for calling them patriots. But a historian at the Western History Conference asked him why the hell he was writing about Indians; “no one cares about Indians.”

After Patriot Chiefs, Alvin moved from Time to American Heritage, and there he hired and mentored historian David McCullough. They remained friends—McCullough emceed Alvin’s 80th birthday party in Jackson Hole in 1995. Unfortunately, I didn’t read McCullough’s award winning biography of John Adams until after Alvin died, so did not get a chance to ask him why he thought McCullough failed to address the issue of Indians in the first days of the Republic in his book. I wonder now if Alvin felt a sting with McCullough’s dismissal of Indians, who had become his own focus in writing and advocacy.

In 1969, Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America was nominated for an American Book Award. The New York Times said that it contained more information on Indians in one volume than most small American libraries had on their shelves. But its lack of impact on the standard historical narrative in American textbooks must have bothered Alvin. In 1973, in an article in Learning Magazine titled “The Forked Tongue in U. S. History Books,” he documented the lies and omissions regarding Indians in California textbooks of the day.

There are other upstream stories, but I’ll end this rant with Alvin’s 1992 book, America in 1492: the World of the Indian Peoples before the Arrival of Columbus. In the Introduction, he reminds us that 500 years earlier Columbus had landed in the Bahamas among a people he misnamed “Indians,” and a tribe he misnamed “Caribs,” or “cannibals.” Alvin wrote that “no adverse impact visited on the Indians by the 1492 voyage… was more profound in its consequences than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds.” The newcomers asserted the superiority of their “religious, political and social universe” over those of many “different indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego…” The ethnocentricity that began with Columbus continued through Alvin’s day—and continues to the present day.

The final Josephy words that ring in my ears are from visits to bookstores as we traveled together to speeches and book signings for his 2001 memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon. He’d look for his books, and finding them with the “butterflies… dinosaurs, and dodo birds,” he’d mutter that “Indians don’t have history or biography, you know.” They have anthropology, and are consigned to “museums of natural history, not human history.” Next to the seashells and butterflies on bookstore shelves.

His was a hard but glorious fifty-year paddle.

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