On Friday night, Angela Sodenaa, Precious Lands Coordinator for the Nez Perce Tribe, gave a stirring talk at Wallowology in Joseph, “The Nimiipuu and the qúˀnes: Condor Recovery in Hells Canyon.” She recapped condor demise and recovery across the West, and the Tribe’s work in establishing the feasibility of condor return to the Snake River and tributaries, and advocacy work on behalf of that return.Read Rich’s Post →
One of the pleasures of working in this Josephy Library is coming across material that is relevant today, and that might have been hidden from view for years or decades. So, on and off since Alvin Josephy’s death—almost 20 years ago!—I have poked at a story he told me about a project he had undertaken that did not result in a book.
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.Read Rich’s Post →
We just lost a good man who is probably now unknown to most Americans—although the nation’s news frequently talks about the Indian Child Welfare Act, which he was instrumental in steering into law in 1978. The New York Times announced his passing:
“James Abourezk, who was elected by South Dakotans as the first Arab American senator, and who used his prominence to support the causes of Palestinians and Native Americans while also pushing for friendlier relations with Cuba and Iran, died on Friday, his 92nd birthday, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D.”Read Rich’s Post →
Yesterday the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture celebrated ten years of life as a non-profit, and a few months more of programming. Last year, at nine, we purchased the old log bank building that has been our home since the beginning. Anne Stephens, who first conceived of a new arts center in Joseph, was honored last night, as was Cheryl Coughlan, the Center director for over nine of our years. I too was thanked, and got to say a few words of thanks. And to report on a unique and wonderful gift from the Josephy family.Read Rich’s Post →
It’s something new—and mostly good—every day. Today, in Native News Online, we learn that:
“600 people attended the Tribal Language Summit at the Oklahoma City Convention Center to hear from leading educators and policymakers in Indian Country on how to protect, preserve and promote America’s Indigenous languages.Read Rich’s Post →
In the new Smithsonian Magazine: “South to the Promised Land,” the “other” Underground Railroad, the one that went overland and across the Rio Grande to Mexico.
Mexico won its independence in 1821. And, fatefully, soon opened its doors to Anglo-American settlers in the northern frontier state of Texas. Some mixed American families—Whites who had freed and sometimes married their slaves—came to the remote lands to ranch, and became stops on that railroad. But most of the new settlers brought slaves, which resulted in confrontations with the Mexican government. In 1824, Mexico banned the importation of slaves. Anglo settlers called for a revolution, and in 1836 won independence from Mexico and wrote slavery into its constitution. The Alamo wasn’t all about freedom, especially for slaves and former slaves.Read Rich’s Post →
It’s a heavy job to give to Indians—and I use “Indians” here in deference to older tribal people who still use that term comfortably—but I don’t know who else we turn to. Young white men are killing African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Young Blacks are killing each other on the streets, and I don’t know about today but know that in the past Latino and Asian gangs also killed their own.Read Rich’s Post →
Several friends quickly sent me the NYTimes review of a new book on the old subject of human origins in the Americas. The book is ORIGIN: A Genetic History of the Americas, and the author is Jennifer Raff. According to the reviewer, Raff consulted the sciences of “archaeology, genetics, and linguistics” in her book—which I have not read, but have ordered!Read Rich’s Post →
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.”Read Rich’s Post →
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.
“Rumble” is a 2017 Canadian documentary film that I’d missed until it hit public television. I watched it twice, taking notes the second time, wanting to get in my mind the names of Rock n’ Roll, jazz, and blues musicians I’d listened to—and many I had not heard or heard of before.
I’d have to slow it down and stop action to get all the names and dates, but I know enough now to know that once again the roles of American Indians in the American story have been hidden or muted, and that there is again the story of resilience. Joy Harjo, our current national poet laureate and a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, says, as the credits roll, that “We’re still here; we’re still alive; we’re still singing.Read Rich’s Post →
When I had the bookstore all those years ago, I kept a big supply of Bison Books from the University of Nebraska that told the tales of the fur traders and mountain men. It was not my thing; American history was not my thing. I read fiction and short stories, mysteries and books from and about the Ottoman Empire and the wars on the Eastern Front.Read Rich’s Post →
October 5, 1877 is the day on which the wal’wá·ma band of the Nez Perce and members of other non-treaty bands lost their freedom. They’d intended to go quietly from the Wallowa to the reduced Idaho reservation, leaving and losing their homeland but continuing to live in nearby country among relatives from other bands. They crossed the Snake River into Idaho in spring runoff, and there the grief-stricken actions of some young Nez Perce in killing Idaho settlers—settlers known for their mistreatment of Indians—set off a fighting retreat of more than 1200 miles. It ended on this day 144 yeasr ago at the Bears Paw mountains in Montana, just 40 miles short of safety in Canada.Read Rich’s Post →
Chuck Sams, Jaime Pinkham, and Deb Haaland Federal Government appointments were my good news last week. It turns out I stopped short in my research into what is going on in the Biden Administration, and made an error regarding government agencies at the same time. Thanks first to my friend Geoff, who advises that:
“The Army Corps of Engineers is within the Department of Defense, not Interior. Mike Connor, who will be the Asst. Secretary of the Army for Civil Works after confirmation… is Native too, Taos Pueblo. Jaime [Pinkham] Acting in his position, will be one rung below him, so both Native. Bob Anderson, also Native, is the Solicitor to Secretary of Interior, a critically important position, was Senate confirmed.”
And friend Elnora caught another of my misses—Brian Newland. Read Rich’s Post →
I don’t know very many Nez Perce words, and will never be a speaker, but it I love the sound of the language and hope to learn a few more. For now, Good Morning and Thank You are enough.
Tac meeywi to all, and qe’ci’yew’yew’ to the many who responded to my blog post about whites writing about Indians. A few things stand out: people are interested in learning the history of Indian peoples—and all American history—that is true and real. They are tired of the omissions and outright lies taught for years in our school textbooks, dismayed by what most of us learned as children. They are very upset about the current boarding school revelations, and wonder how this could have gone on and not be known about in our own times.Read Rich’s Post →
Every day of reading and rethinking our country’s history brings new ideas; some days, epiphanies. Today’s epiphany is about words—who has them, keeps them, and pays attention to them. What they might mean for tomorrow.
Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, sparks today’s thoughts. The message of the book is in the title. For approximately ten years, from 1830-1840, the Indian Removal Act legislated and then aimed to carry out the removal of all—supposedly about 80,000—American Indians remaining east of the Mississippi River to the West, to some vague but increasingly real place called Indian Territory. The Act destroyed the lives of scores of tribes and thousands of Indians, while it enriched others.
“No adverse impact visited on the 1492 voyage of “discovery” was more profound in its consequences in every nook and cranny of the Americas than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds. Asserting the superiority of the white aggrandizers’’ religious, political, and social universe over each of the many indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, this ethnocentricity was an arrogant vice, backed by superior firepower and boundless gall, that never faltered or weakened. It continues unabashedly on both continents today, and its impact has been felt long after the conquest of the continents was complete.”
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, page 4.
There’s the sin, the hubris, the tragic flaw in our origins.
It is popular—almost automatic in some circles—to say that slavery is America’s Original Sin. It is also true that slavery existed in many parts of the world prior to the 1619 importation of African slaves to North America, prior to Columbus’s century earlier enslavement of “Indians” of the Caribbean (and exportation of some to Europe).
Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism in America, recounts the Western Europeans’ importation of Slavic slaves, the development of African slavery and the European—and eventually American—traffic in African slaves, and the development of color conscious superiority thinking in Europe. Kendi would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Josephy’s comment, made on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World.
There is no argument that slavery—the “legal” or culturally acknowledged ownership of one human by another—is evil. But Josephy’s point, echoed by Kendi and by Louis Farrakhan in a speech at the Black “Million Man March” on the Capitol Mall in 1995 (quoted by Kendi), is that “The real evil in America is not white flesh or black flesh. The real evil in America is the idea that undergirds the setup of the Western world, and that idea is called white supremacy.”
I love the word “undergirded” here. And if we think in terms of undergirded and white supremacy as visited on the indigenous peoples of America from Columbus forward, we have only to add Josephy’s “Western European Ethnocentricity” and the gradual expansion of what “white” means to get to where we are today.
Because White, for the first 400+ years of our United States history, did not mean Irish or Greek, Syrian, Eastern European, or Russian Jew. With the massive mobilization and movement of troops across the country in WW II, “White” began to include non-Anglo and non-Western European Americans. It became more fully realized, as Kendi points out, with the GI Bill and suburbanization after the War. Blacks, who were segregated through WW II, were largely excluded by the GI Bill (as were American Indians), and White emphatically did not mean Chinese American and Japanese American and Filipino-American as we enacted internment camps (there were of course no German-American internment camps during WW II), and embraced anti-Asian and miscegenation laws well into the 1950s.
White was broadening. Levittown was open to Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans as well as Anglo-Americans, and although there were still quotas in colleges and universities on the number of Jews admitted, Jewish-Americans were leaving their “ghettos” with humor—all the major comics in the age of TV variety shows and LP records I grew up with were Jewish: Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce. American Jews too were making marks in book, film, and song: Philip Roth, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler…
On TV, Irish American Carrol O’Conner, as Archie Bunker, a lovable bigot with son-in-law “meathead” as his next generation liberal foil, replaced “Leave it to Beaver” as the standard American family. And an Irish-American was elected president!
African-Americans, Indians, and Asian-Americans were certainly not secure in the post-war world that created the “largest middle class” the country had ever known. They were only creeping in at the edges with policies and practices Kendi, Josephy, and the leaders and immediate followers of the Eisenhower administration called “assimilation.” Trying to become culturally—and sometimes, with hair, skin, and eye treatments, physically—White.
Kendi argues–I think convincingly–that assimilation is not the answer to white superiority. “Inroads,” yes; success for some Blacks and Indians and “other” Americans on white terms, yes; but until we root out the Original Sin of Western European White Supremacy, all Americans, including White Americans (quoting James Baldwin), will not be free and equal human beings.
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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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The essay by Alvin Josephy appeared in a book, Indians in American History: an Introduction, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, and published in 1988. “Modern America and the Indian” is one in a fine collection of essays by scholars–many of them tribal members also–examining American history from the Indian’s side.Read Rich’s Post →