The following piece appeared in “Indian Country Today” in September of 2018, an “update” of the original obituary of 2005. It was entitled “The life of Alvin M. Josephy Jr., authoritative interpreter of history.”
Alvin M. Josephy Jr., called an “iconic figure in American Indian history,”
distinguished award-winning journalist, World War II Marine Corps combat
correspondent, magazine and book editor, pre-eminent historian on the
American West and American Indians on whose behalf he was a tireless
advocate (culminating with his role as the founding chairman for the
Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian), died
Oct. 16 at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 90.
Among Josephy’s more than a dozen authoritative books, cited for their
literary quality as well as their exacting research, are: “The Patriot
Chiefs,” “The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest,” “Red
Power,” “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” “The Civil War in the American
West,” “The Indian Heritage of America” (a National Book Award nominee) and
“500 Nations.” His book, “A Walk Toward Oregon: A Memoir,” captures his
long and dramatic career through most of the 20th century. It was named one
of the top 100 books of 2000 by The New York Times. His latest book, “Lewis
and Clark Through Indian Eyes,” is scheduled for publication by Alfred A.
Knopf in 2006.
A former foreign correspondent in Guatemala and Mexico (where he
interviewed the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky), an associate
editor of Time Magazine and vice president and editor in chief of American
Heritage Publications, Josephy for almost 50 years played an active role in
supporting American Indians in their struggles for self-determination,
treaty rights and sovereignty.
Stated Stewart Udall, former Interior Department secretary in the Kennedy
and Johnson administrations and for whom Josephy served as a consultant in
1963 and 1964: “Alvin M. Josephy was a valued friend for over 45 years.
From the late 1950s, in his books and articles beginning with his first
book for American Heritage on American Indians and their history, until his
masterful summation in ‘500 Nations,’ he was the most important creative
interpreter of the history and culture of Native Americans. His
authoritative voice influenced the opinions and actions of presidents and
members of Congress. He was always in the forefront of the fight for Indian
rights and justice. As a spokesman for Native people he had no peer.”
Over the years, Josephy was a consultant to many private, governmental and
Indian organizations, including the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs and the National Congress of American Indians.
In the late 1960s, he was the author of a special report on change in
Indian policy for president-elect Nixon, which ushered in the era of tribal
His work advanced a dialogue that for the first time in the 1960s included
the voices of Native peoples describing their own history of many thousands
of years, their democracies and cultures in the “New World.” Josephy’s
scholarship and advocacy over the last half of the 20th century laid the
groundwork for this movement.
During the early 1970s, he wrote for Audubon Magazine on the environmental
impacts of large industrial projects on the life of the West. Through his
interest in the history of American Indians he was able to link the history
of the region and Native peoples with the emerging environmental movement.
This had a sweeping impact on a generation of environmental historians like
Richard White, Patricia Limerick and Char Miller.
Josephy was a trustee for the Museum of the American Indian in New York and
from there was elected founding chairman of the board of trustees of the
Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian, a place in which
American Indians would tell their own stories and interpret their own
culture. Said director W. Richard West, Southern Cheyenne, “We feel his
presence every day … his imprimatur is on every aspect of the museum.”
Josephy also served as vice chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board,
where noted curator of Indian Arts and Crafts, George Horse Capture, has
said: “He is a heroic figure, a pioneering figure. We treasure him.”
Over the years, Josephy was a fellow of the American Antiquarian Society, a
Guggenheim fellow and was awarded a doctorate of humanities degree from
Albertson College in Caldwell, Idaho. In 1965 and 1968, he received the
Golden Spur Award and the Western Writers of America Award of Merit for his
book “The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest.” In 1995 he
received the Wallace Stegner Award at the Center for the American West at
the University of Colorado. In 1996 he was presented the Oregon Governor’s
Awards in the Arts and, later, the Oregon Book Award for a distinguished
career in Oregon letters.
Josephy served as president of the Western History Association in 1993 and
1994, was on the board of the Society of American Historians, the
Association on American Indian Affairs, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society
in Washington, D.C., the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Western
Folklife Center and Friends of the Earth.
Josephy was born in Woodmere, Long Island on May 18, 1915, and was raised
in New York City. He was educated at Horace Mann School, where he began his
journalism career on the school newspaper interviewing writers of the day
including John Galsworthy, G.K. Chesterton and H.L. Mencken (the latter he
came to know through his uncle, publisher Alfred A. Knopf).
Josephy attended Harvard University for two years, but the Depression
forced him to leave and accept a screenwriting offer from MGM in
California. He returned to New York and in 1936 began work for the New York
Herald Tribune as a reporter and, several years later, with WOR as director
of news and special events.
With the onset of World War II, Josephy moved to Washington, D.C. to work
for the Office of War Information as its radio bureau’s chief of special
events. He joined the Marine Corps in 1943 as a combat correspondent
serving in the South Pacific with the Third Marine Division. Carrying heavy
recording equipment, Josephy covered the battles in Guadalcanal, Guam and
Iwo Jima. He received a Bronze Star for his work in Guam when he landed
with the advanced troops, recording for the first and only time an
on-the-spot account of an amphibious assault in progress, called an “epic”
by a later commentator. In 1946 he wrote his first book, “The Long, the
Short and the Tall,” an account of his Marine Corps experiences published
Josephy was preceded in death by his wife of 56 years, Elizabeth Peet. He
is survived by a brother, Warren Josephy, of New York City; daughters Diane
Josephy Peavey of Carey, Idaho, Allison Wolowitz of Old Greenwich, Conn.
and Katherine Josephy of Enterprise, Ore.; and a son, Alvin M. Josephy III
of Olympia, Wash. He also leaves eight grandchildren and one
An open house for friends and family was held Oct. 23 at his home in
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