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 →
June marked the 145th anniversary of Custer’s debacle at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s death as a hero fighting for white dominance of the Plains against savage and hostile Indians contributed to the increased military pressure that ultimately did clear the West for white expansion. The true history of that day and Custer, shrouded in the hero mythology promulgated by, among others, his widow, Libby, has been debated and recreated in more books and movies than almost any event in American history.
We now know that Custer was a blunderer and a boaster, a man who had promulgated atrocities against Indians and led his troops into certain death; in less than an hour, the Sioux and Cheyenne had won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, killing Custer and every one of his men. The country was shocked—and ready to believe a story of heroism against the savages.Read Rich’s Post →
|Hollow Horn Bear–1923 US Postage Stamp|
I’ve been a big fan of Ken Burns’ documentaries—like many I watched the Civil War series as it came out; like many (though not as many) watched “Baseball” explore the post Civil War Civil Rights journey; and I caught most of the recent “Vietnam” series the first time around and will watch the one episode and parts of others I missed as they come back to my screen.
Yet there is a giant hole in the work of Ken Burns. In the September 4 issue of the New Yorker, author Ian Parker profiles the documentarian, and the headline writers call it “Mr. America.” Parker recounts many of Burns’ triumphs, from “The Brooklyn Bridge” to “Mark Twain” and the “Dust Bowl.” And he quotes Burns on at least ten ideas for the future, including “Hemingway,” “Crime and Punishment in America,” and “Country Music,” which is already in the can and set to run. He’s also considering “Winston Churchill,” and chuckles that it fits into his pantheon because Churchill had an American mother.
Burns is a history buff, an American History buff. But something big is missing: Americans. Here I step back to the original meaning of that term. The current issue of American Indian Magazine announces the fall exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, “The Americans.” It then explains that
“The exhibition’s title is a play on words. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition provided for ‘American’ is ‘An indigenous inhabitant of (any part of) the Americas; an American Indian.’ This usage was common until the early 19th century.”
I googled. Here is the 1828 Webster’s Definition: “A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. The name American must always exalt the pride of patriotism.”
The NMAI exhibit traces the use of Indian images by government and industry over the entire course of US history, from a 1792 “Peace and Commerce” medal with a bare-breasted and beautiful Indian “queen,” to the “Tomahawk missile” and (my favorite) the Pontiac car, named after an Ottawa Indian Chief who’d beat the British.
Maybe the most dramatic image is that of Hollow Horn Bear, and I quote at length from the American Indian Magazine article because it says it all:
Already a familiar face in Washington, D.C., Sicangu (Brule) Lakota chief Mat ó Hé lo e a, or Hollow Horn Bear (c. 1850–1913) became the iconic, if unnamed, “American Indian” by 1923, when his likeness appeared on the new 14-cent U.S. postage stamp. He also appeared on the five-dollar bill, the first and only historic Native to be shown on U.S. paper currency. Hollow Horn Bear fought alongside Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud in Red Cloud’s War of 1866–68 and participated in the defeat of Gen. George A. Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Yet he later served as a delegate to the federal government and marched in the inaugural parades of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and Woodrow Wilson in 1913. His transition from feared enemy to national symbol is one of the mysteries explored in the major new exhibit “Americans,” opening this fall at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.
The complications: an Indian who lived through the Indian Wars and fought against one-time hero George Custer, but did not live long enough to see the true story of Custer explained to the public—or to see his own image on a US Postage Stamp! Somehow exemplary of the crazy many-sided ways that later Euro-Americans have addressed, and continue to address, the people who were here to meet the Mayflower, Columbus’ boats, and those of the slavers. The “500 Nations” of North America and the many more of Central and South America.
I’d challenge the historian in Ken Burns to take on this story, one that makes the complications of the Civil War and Vietnam pale, a story about Americans who saved the Plymouth colony and Lewis and Clark, influenced Benjamin Franklin and the first colonialists, and excited Rousseau, the fur traders, mountain men, and generations of movie makers. And these Americans—unlike the Civil War heroes and the fading population of World War II veterans and Rosy the Riveters, are alive today and holding on to languages and cultures that sustained them long before the new Americans hit the shores of the American continents.
Which president, which time?
|President Ulysses S. Grant|
Indian trails of tears are littered with Presidential lies. We could pick almost any one, but why not take the hero of the Civil War and the man on the $50 bill. He had some interesting dealings with the Nez Perce, so I am somewhat familiar with President Grant’s “Peace Policy” and stated attempts to do better by Indians than had his predecessors.
The Nez Perce had signed a treaty with the nation in 1855 that left them much of their traditional homeland, including the Wallowa Country. In 1863, gold was found on that reservation in Idaho, so the government negotiated a new treaty, centered in Lapwai, Idaho, which reduced the size of the reservation by about 90 percent. Old Joseph and the chiefs of several other Nez Perce bands did not sign, and Joseph went back to the Wallowas, where no gold had been discovered, and where he was briefly left alone.
Grant was elected in 1868. The Wallowa Country, which had been surveyed with the 1863 treaty (during the Civil War!), got its first white settlers in 1871, about the time that Old Joseph died and his son became the band’s headman. The first settlers and Indian hosts tried to get along, though fences and seasonal migrations immediately brought conflict.
Encouraged by the Presbyterian Indian Agent John Montieth (the Peace Policy gave tribal administration to the churches), knowing that Joseph’s Band had not signed the 1863 treaty (and that no Wallowa gold had been found) President Grant proposed a new treaty in 1873, giving the Indians half of the Wallowas. The government went so far as appraising improvements on the way to buying out settlers.
It of course didn’t happen—the “Proposed Reservation for Roaming Nez Perce Indians in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon” died when Indians did not build picket fences and “settle down” on the land and new settlers came into the Valley. The end of that series of broken promises was the Nez Perce War of 1877.
But here’s a new one I just learned about Grant’s dealing with Indians. The article in the March issue of the Smithsonian Magazine is titled “Ulysses S. Grant Launched an Illegal War against the Plains Indians, Then Lied About It.” And here are a couple of pertinent quotes:
“He had no legal reason for seizing the Black Hills, so he invented one, convening a secret White House cabal to plan a war against the Lakotas. Four documents, held at the Library of Congress and the United States Military Academy Library, leave no doubt: The Grant administration launched an illegal war and then lied to Congress and the American people about it. The episode hasn’t been examined outside the specialty literature on the Plains wars…
“In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Lakotas were entitled to damages for the taking of their land. The sum, uncollected and accruing interest, now exceeds $1 billion. The Lakotas would rather have the Black Hills.”
And they would rather not have a pipeline either, but that is another series of lies. Here’s the link to the full story on Grant, the Sioux, and Custer:
There’s no word from Standing Rock in the New York Times or on CNN today. Indians slip into the national news on occasion—and then, on most occasions, slip out as quickly.
Both CNN and MSNBC did report yesterday about an oil spill from another pipeline just three hours from Standing Rock. The spill happened more than a week ago, on December 5. According to CNN,
“State officials estimate 4,200 barrels of crude oil, or 176,000 gallons, have leaked from the Belle Fourche Pipeline in Billings County. Of that amount, 130,000 gallons of oil has flowed into Ash Coulee Creek, while the rest leaked onto a hillside, said Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager at the North Dakota Department of Health.”
Had it been in New York or Pennsylvania, the Times would have had someone on it, and it would not have slipped away from its reporters in just a day. In North Dakota and elsewhere in Indian Country, such national attention is fleeting.
The most recent reports I find in national news from Standing Rock give the government forces a chance to explain their actions. North Dakota’s Congressman Kevin Cramer has taken every opportunity, including an op-ed space in the Wall Street Journal, to criticize the protestors for disrespecting “private property rights,” and the Obama Administration for ignoring the “rule of law” for “political expediency.”
Indians, and especially the Sioux, could school the Congressman on the rule of law and political expediency! Here’s a brief statement from the National Archives:
|Wounded Knee – 1890|
“The Black Hills of Dakota are sacred to the Sioux Indians. In the 1868 treaty, signed at Fort Laramie and other military posts in Sioux country, the United States recognized the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, set aside for exclusive use by the Sioux people. In 1874, however, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills accompanied by miners who were seeking gold. Once gold was found in the Black Hills, miners were soon moving into the Sioux hunting grounds and demanding protection from the United States Army. Soon, the Army was ordered to move against wandering bands of Sioux hunting on the range in accordance with their treaty rights. In 1876, Custer, leading an army detachment, encountered the encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne at the Little Bighorn River. Custer’s detachment was annihilated, but the United States would continue its battle against the Sioux in the Black Hills until the government confiscated the land in 1877. To this day, ownership of the Black Hills remains the subject of a legal dispute between the U.S. government and the Sioux.”
I get a glimpse today of what Alvin Josephy must have felt like time and again as he tried to bring the Indian Story to the American public. Looking for his own books in bookstores, he often found them with the “dinosaurs and the insects.” “Indians don’t have history and biography,” he would say. “They have anthropology and ‘natural’ history.”
Which did not stop him from using all the tools at his disposal—his editorial perch at American Heritage; his relations with Knopf Publishing; his standing as an award winning Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific in WW 2—to bring real Indian history and biography, real Indian voices, to the American Public.
I realize that in many ways, now that I sit in my own perch at the Josephy Library, the Sioux were often involved in his truth telling. A long article he prepared for National Geographic did not, due to editorial changes, get published. And I am still looking for a book-length Sioux manuscript he once told me was still publishable. Nevertheless, how he followed events in Sioux Country and what he did publish is substantial:
There was the “Custer Myth” in Life Magazine in 1971, the story of a visit to the Little Big Hole Battlefield with some Indian friends during the time that Alvin served as a technical advisor for the film, “Little Big Man.” In 1971, Josephy pointed out, government interpreters at the National Park site were still calling Custer a hero and the Indians savages!
In 1973, just two years later, and only weeks after the Indian-FBI confrontation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Alvin published “Wounded Knee and All That: What the Indians Really Want,” in the New York Times. He included a grizzly burial photo of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee of over 300 Sioux—many, including women and children, were killed in their tipis by Hotchkiss machine gun fire.
And then, in 1990, on the 100th anniversary of the first Wounded Knee, he wrote its historical account for a book published by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center: Wounded Knee: Lest We Forget. I’d suggest that Congressman Kramer, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, other government and pipeline officials, and especially environmental activists concerned about water and Indian treaty rights, read this brief account of how the Indians standing at Standing Rock came to be there.
Email me to get a pdf of this essay.
And Alvin was there to help.
|King ran for office in Guelph|
The name came to Edward S. Curtis from Indians, who were the subject of his life work—a twenty volume study in words and pictures of The North American Indian. The title of Tim Egan’s fascinating new biography is Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.