Alvin Josephy, Custer, the Indian Story—and Vietnam

On Thursday night we watched a “rough cut” version of a documentary chronicling Alvin Josephy’s career as a historian of and advocate for Indians. Sean Cassidy, retired from Lewis-Clark State College, introduced the film, which he and fellow LC professor Patricia Keith put together in the early 2000s.

The late Robert Utley, a historian who had his disagreements with Alvin, is one of the featured interviews. Utley grudgingly acknowledges Josephy’s contributions to the field of Indian History in America—in Utley’s eyes, Josephy gradually moves from being a journalist to a real historian—and says that Alvin’s 1971 piece on Custer in Life Magazine was more political than historical.

And it was—political and historical. It was political in the best sense of that word. First, it appeared in Life Magazine, founded, along with Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, by Henry Luce. Luce had been Alvin’s boss at Time for a decade, and the editor of this 1971 edition of Life writes in the introduction to this special issue on “Our Indian Heritage” that Luce prohibited stories on American Indians in all of his magazines. Alvin wrote in his memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon, that Luce thought Indians “phonies” who should just forget the past and get on with being Americans. Luce died in 1967, three years before this special issue of Life. This major omission in the nation’s most popular magazines was, in my mind, a far-reaching and damaging political action on Luce’s part. The new editors of Life were announcing a new direction in popular publishing.

Josephy’s contribution to this groundbreaking issue was “The Custer Myth.” The piece appeared in the dark days of the Vietnam War, and Alvin wastes no time in telling us that the interpreters at the Custer National Battlefield Monument (now the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument) told visitors that new histories describing Custer’s atrocities against Indians, and his part in illegally bringing white miners onto treaty-guaranteed Indian lands were all part of an anti-American effort to cast aspersions on the US Military. This too was political, although Alvin was making an observation rather presenting a political viewpoint. He let the interpreter display politics.

Alvin was at the museum with some Indian friends. Although he doesn’t say so, I think they were involved in “Little Big Man,” the movie featuring a 120 year-old Dustin Hoffman relating the true story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Indians, dressed inconspicuously like the other visitors—not in Native garb—grew gradually upset as the interpreter told the story as it had been handed him—and the general public—in books and movies for decades. Custer and his US Military troops were heroes, and they had been massacred by Sioux Indians who were “savages.”

“Crazy Horse,” muttered one of Joseph’s Indian friends, “was no savage. He was a hero.”

The interpreter did not tell his audience of Custer’s previous massacre of completely innocent Indians, or the story of Custer’s promoting the illegal entry of gold miners onto reservation lands. Josephy does, and continues with a rapid historical review of Indian-White relations—colonization, displacement, missionizing, wars, and assimilation. He tells us how relentlessly the Army pursued the Sioux after Custer’s defeat, how Sitting Bull and Crazy horse were hounded and killed, and how the Indian Wars ended in 1890 with the massacre of over 300 Sioux—hungry, sick, trying to move to a safer reservation—were mowed down with Hotchkiss machine guns and buried in a mass grave at Wounded Knee.

Alvin marks this as an inflection point in American Indian history—no, in American history, the point at which the last Indian holdouts to White aggression were savagely subdued. And he punctuates his story with a photo of the mass Indian grave. That photo had not been in my history books, nor had it been part of our popular notions of the conquering of the West by American troops and settlers. Ours had always been a kinder picture.

For many years, Henry Luce had a headlock on American attitudes toward Indians—and for that matter, on US-China relations, but that is another story. Enough to say that in 1971, after Luce’s death, the most popular photo magazine in America announced “Our Indian Heritage,” and helped open the door to fifty years of Native revival.

Alvin is gone now too, but Luce must be turning over in his grave, while Alvin is smiling.

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