I remember a long time ago, maybe 40 years ago, when I had the bookstore in Enterprise and waited each summer for the Josephys to arrive from the East. Betty would drop Alvin off at the bookstore and go visiting. Alvin would begin browsing the “local” section, and ask me about all the new titles. He loved the small family stories, the diaries, and the amateurs who wrote about the railroads, the post offices, a piece of land or a family tree.

He often derided the academic historians and the writers of textbook and popular histories of the West, who, when they wrote about Indians at all, passed on old tropes and omitted most things that made the Indians intelligent beings intent on making the most out of desperate situations.

Read Rich’s Post →

Covid-19 and American Indians

Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have been struck by the outsized impact of Covid-19 on American Indians, and by the lack of serious discussion of their apparent special vulnerability to the disease. The stories we read and hear are about bad water and poor living conditions among the Navajo and the Ojibwe—and in Black and Latino zip codes. I understand—and want nothing more than to make sure that everyone in America has clean and lead-free water and access to good health care. And I believe, with my liberal cohort, that it is government’s duty to ensure clean water and good health care. We cannot, in today’s world, be our own water testers and doctors.Read Rich’s Post →

Learning–and teaching–Indian history

“The realization has finally begun to dawn that American society as a whole has suffered from ‘forked tongue’ history books… Year after year, the distortions, misrepresentations, and failure to tell the whole historical story foster erroneous and stereotyped thinking about Indians, and lead to still further misrepresentations, prejudice and contempt.”
Alvin Josephy, Learning Magazine, 1973

“…for the most part these revelations—the great antiquity, size, and sophistication of Indian societies—are new to the public… Why don’t intelligent non-specialists, the sort of people who know a bit about stem cells and read contemporary literature, already know something about how researchers think of the Americas before Columbus?… Why isn’t this material already in high school textbooks?”
Charles Mann, Afterword to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, 2006

In Charles Mann’s brilliant 2005 book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, he scans the results of hundreds of recent ethnographic, linguistic, archeological, anthropological, and biological studies. He calls and visits noted field scientists, travels with them along the Amazon and atop the Andes, and paints vivid pictures of what we now know about the pre-Columbian Americas. There are stories of monumental architecture, glyph writing systems, complicated leadership patterns, and information about the size, depth, and breadth of major agricultural settlements and civilizations. Importantly, there are many stories about the extent to which indigenous peoples managed their environments. They used fire, built soil, and found and adapted plants–corn, squash, legumes, etc.–to a wide range of climatic conditions–Mesoamerican corn taken all the way to northeastern North America, for example. .In an afterword to the paperback edition, Mann laments the fact that this knowledge—of digs, studies, discoveries—and new interpretations of pre-Columbian history have not penetrated textbooks and popular culture. At one university appearance, an American history professor innocently asks Mann where he can find all of this information. Mann is happy that he asks, but sad that the historian fails to realize that his answers are in the room with him—the archeologist in the next building, the anthropologist down the hall.

In the past, Mann says, it would have been easy to blame institutional racism for our limited and distorted views of the ancient Americas, but in an era of ethnic and gender studies, this seems unlikely. The “culprit,” he conjectures, is disciplinary boundaries. Charles Mann is a journalist, not beholden to any one academic discipline and anxious to learn from all of them. In this he is a direct descendent of Alvin Josephy, who was also a journalist, who cited linguistic and archeological studies as leading tools for learning about the past in his award winning 1968 book, The Indian Heritage of America. In my mind, Mann’s 1491 reads like its sequel.

Mann, and Josephy before him, says that we—most Americans—have settled on an archetypical North American Indian. He is a Plains Indian on a horse—though horses arrived very late in the history of human habitation of the continents. And hunting and gathering were the economies of some but not all indigenous western hemisphere civilizations. And he has disappeared, vanished into myth and story. Or he—and she—should have got on with it and become totally assimilated by now.

Mann, like Josephy before him, thinks that Indian history reaches back to antiquity, but lives in the present. And that Indian cultures—especially the ways they have and still do deal with agriculture, societal organization, and the “two-leggeds” place and roles in the whole of the world—have much to teach us today.

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How do we keep learning from Alvin?

Alvin Josephy died in 2005. I read something that he wrote—or that was written to or about him—almost every day. And I am continually amazed by what he said and when and where he said it.

In Life Magazine in 1971, Josephy wrote that the US government interpreters were telling visitors at the Custer Battlefield that Custer was a hero and the Indians were savages; in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1973, just weeks after the FBI-Indian confrontation at Wounded Knee, he said that the Indians were justified, and published photos of Custer’s troops being buried with high ceremony and Sioux Indian survivors of the battle being slaughtered and buried in a mass grave. In 1992 he reminded—in speeches and a book, America in 1492—that Columbus came to a land of some 75 or 90 million people, over 2000 mutually unintelligible languages, and cities larger than any in Europe at the time. And that the learned clerics and academicians in Spain began an immediate “solemn intellectual discourse” concerning the Native peoples of the “so-called New World,” to determine whether its inhabitants were “human” or “sub-human” beings.

I wonder every day how we keep Alvin’s work and legacy alive—more importantly, how we use it to inform contemporary conversations about history, government, Indian affairs, and environmental issues that are on the table today.

The problem is that Alvin was a scrupulous researcher who used the latest research in archeology, ethnography, linguistics, etc. Many of his journalism pieces reflect the best knowledge of the time, which might not be up to date today (DNA was just coming on as Alvin’s career wound down). His books still attract an audience—but there are new writers saying similar things today. Why go back and read what Alvin had to say?

I think it has to do with vision—with a vision of US History and Indian history and how they were intertwined and distorted by the lack of acknowledgement that Indians HAD a history before Euro-Americans. It has to do with honoring personal interview, stories and legends, the pieces of culture that were discarded, or were pushed out of the “history” bin and into the “natural history” bin (along with dinosaurs and bugs, as Alvin said). It has to do with what he called “Eurocentrism” which devalues indigenous knowledge and non-Judeo-Christian religious traditions.

In the “Oklahoma Lecture in the Humanities” presented in Tulsa in 1992, Alvin quotes a textbook, American History: A Survey, published by his publisher, Knopf, in 1987! “For thousands of centuries, centuries in which the human faces were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works…The story of this new world… is a story of the creation of civilization where none existed.”

He reminded his audience that the learned historians were not alone, that few Americans knew about American Indians’ contributions of food, language, and law to the world, and that most Americans still thought that American Indians were all pretty much the same—spoke one generic language, had one religion, and had had one economy, stereotypically that of the post horse plains Indians. They didn’t—and I would add that we still don’t—know where the Cherokees and Navajos and Blackfeet live, and how their pre-Columbian migrations and post US national government wars and treaties got them there.

This speech was given in 1992. Alvin’s words, which can I think drive us still, are that “For the Quincentenary to have more than surface meaning, finally, for ourselves and our children’s children, we ought to recognize and understand, also, not alone what Indians have contributed to the world, but what they could have contributed if they had been allowed to do so, and what they can, and may still, contribute. All in all it is a much bigger assignment than merely acknowledging that Indians, rather than Columbus, discovered America.”

Alvin Josephy is a burr in our historic hides. I want to make sure that he continues to rub.

(photo; Jonathan Nicholas and Alvin Josephy, probably 1989, at Summer Fishtrap at Wallowa Lake Methodist Camp)