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 →
|November- Reuters News
In a brief story in the New York Times this morning, reporter Julie Turkewitz tells us that the Army has approved construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It took Robert Speer, the acting secretary of the Army, two weeks—from the time of President Trump’s announcement that he was going to expedite the building of pipelines—to announce his decision to Congress. Speer said he didn’t need the entire environmental impact statement and news of other potential sites that President Obama had ordered, that he knew enough and is ready to offer the pipeline’s owner a 30-year easement on this “disputed patch of land.”
I glance at the NYT headline stories daily, then go to the opinion pages for the Times editorials, the regular columnists, and op-eds that relate to the day’s news. Standing Rock is missing this morning. Not one editorial writer or columnist chose to weigh in; not one piece of writing from an outraged Indian at Standing Rock or anywhere else in this country got space.
Indians, once again, are back page news.
According to Turkewitz, “the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, Dave Archambault II, responded to the decision by vowing to fight it in court. ‘As native peoples, we have been knocked down again,’ he said in statement. ‘But we will get back up, we will rise above the greed and corruption that has plagued our peoples since first contact.’”
Didn’t I just write about Indian Resilience? Didn’t I believe that months of protests by members of over 300 North American Tribes and Natives from Hawaii and Central America, by environmental organizations and dedicated individuals from across the nation had convinced a country and its government that the planning for this pipeline was flawed, that the Army had once again short-circuited Indians, and that the proposed pipeline might endanger the water, the most critical of our natural resources?
Every day I learn something from Alvin Jospehy. Today I learned that Indians still don’t count for much in this country of ours. They are, as Alvin said, a sideshow in our history, or they are impediments in the way of progress. We’ll put them in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and watch cowboys take the West, We’ll glean spiritual knowledge from their commercial potions and sweats—the old traveling Medicine Shows often featured Indian cures, and hippies in the 70s favored feathers. We’ll celebrate them in pictures with Edward Sheriff Curtis, and picture them when it serves a purpose. Alvin liked to point out the State Department’s use of a mistakenly idealized American Indian—horse-mounted, feather bedecked Sioux of the Plains—in their “visit America” literature.
For over 40 years, Alvin wrote painstakingly about America’s curious and tragic historical omission of Indians. He paid special attention to broken treaties, and to the Sioux. In 1971, when he consulted on the movie, “Little Big Man,” he went to the Custer Battlefield with Indian friends and wrote about the “real Custer” in Life Magazine. In 1973, weeks after the FBI-Indian confrontation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, he wrote “What the Indians Really Want,” a description of government misdeeds going back to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
If Alvin were alive today he would have an op-ed in today’s New York Times. He would be visiting Standing Rock, and pointing out that the “disputed patch of land” that investors, the State of North Dakota, and President Trump want for their oil pipeline is sacred, yes, is important for the water that flows through it, yes. But is finally, once again “stolen ground,” with a long history of broken treaties, and government dissembling, cheating, and war-making on the Indians who have lived their forever.
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|July 2, 1971
But I couldn’t resist a morning diversion, and the result of which, courtesy Dave, is that we can give you, electronically, the complete article that Alvin wrote for Life Magazine July 2, 1971, “The Custer Myth.” Again a recollection—why didn’t I write this stuff down at the time!—is that Alvin was at the Custer Battlefield in conjunction with the making of “Little Big Man,” the Dustin Hoffman film, for which he was a technical advisor. He was traveling with Indian friends, most likely people who were involved with making the movie, people who shriveled as the “interpreter” called Crazy Horse a “savage.” Here is the entire magazine article in digital form. Notice that Alvin uses the occasion to publish a photo of the mass grave at Wounded Knee in 1890.
More to come!
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)