Vine and Alvin

I stopped by Tamastslikt on my way to Portland to talk with curator Randall Melton about some Indian artifacts that Alvin Josephy had left for the Josephy Library at Fishtrap. In the course of conversation he said that he had met Alvin a couple of times, most importantly when he was a student and had gone to Boise for a conference at which Alvin and Vine Deloria were speakers. The day after the program, he had bumped into Vine and Alvin eating breakfast at Denny’s Restaurant, and the two elders had been gracious in talking with the young students.

Which reminded me that Alvin liked Denny’s—I’ve eaten a couple of meals with him and Betty at the same Boise spot—and it reminded me that Alvin and Vine served together on the Board of the Heye Museum of the American Indian in New York, and, when the merger with the Smithsonian occurred in 1989-90, both moved to the new Board of NMAI as original trustees.

I know the story is richer than that, and kick myself for not taking notes when Alvin returned from some of these meetings and gave fast reports on the proceedings. For instance, I know that Senator Inouye had a major role in the legislation authorizing the new museum, but I am not sure about the story of his involvement. Did Alvin tell me that the Senator became deeply committed when he learned that the existing Smithsonian contained the physical remains of over 16,000 indigenous Americans, and that the NMAI legislation was somehow coupled with the repatriation of remains and artifacts?

And did Alvin tell me that his being elected Chair occurred precisely because he was not a tribal member, and therefore not beholden to or representing any specific tribe? That is my recollection, that and the fact that Vine, who was of course enrolled as a Standing Rock Sioux, was the original Vice Chair, and that the two of them, both strong men with deep histories in Indian advocacy as well as history, agreed and disagreed, but worked together on that original Board of Trustees for the good of the museum and the ongoing true histories and her-stories
of Indian peoples and tribes.

Their names appear together in several other places. Vine has chapters in Red Power, a collection of important documents in the American Indians’ Fight for Freedom that Alvin edited, and in the last book that Alvin had a hand in, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. And I just read his “Afterword” to America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, another important collection of Indian voices and Indian subjects that Alvin got into print in time for the “celebration” (by some), and the more sober reflection by Indian peoples of consequences of Columbus.

In words that I think match and explain Alvin’s working philosophy and drive to bring real history to the public and dignity and justice to Indian peoples, Vine says this:

“The native peoples of the American continents suffered total inundation, lost a substantial portion of their population, and in coming into the modern world surrendered much of the natural life which had given them comfort and dignity. But they have managed to survive. Now, at a time when the virtues they represented, and continue to represent, are badly needed by the biosphere struggling to remain alive, they must be given the participatory roles which they might have had in the world if the past five centuries had been different.”

Some day,someone will write about the friendship and professional relationship of these two men, and about their impact on the course of Indian affairs in the broader story that is America.

McCullough and Josephy—part 2

I mentioned in an earlier blog that Alvin hired David McCullough at American Heritage. I implied that Alvin began working for and hired David for the magazine, but in fact Alvin’s first job and his hire of David were in the book division of American Heritage. Alvin would later become editor of the magazine.

Parallels: David McCullough was a lit major in college, and had been a journalist with Sports Illustrated and the United States Information Agency when Alvin hired him at American Heritage. At some point, McCullough came across a batch of photos of the Johnstown flood. He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of that catastrophe, so his interest was aroused, and he went to the bookshelf. Finding no acceptable history of the event, he determined to write it himself. The Johnstown Flood was his first book.

Alvin was working at Time Magazine when he came across the Nez Perce story. He had been a print and radio journalist before the War and a Marine Corps correspondent during the War. He picked up all the available literature on the Nez Perce—and like McCullough with the Jamestown flood, found the books on the shelf wanting. Eventually, after finding Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs, first person accounts of Nez Perce history and the their war, Alvin determined to write the Nez Perce book himself.

Here is where paths part. David McCullough finished the Johnstown book, and, after three years at American Heritage, determined to make it in the world as a narrative historian. He knew it was a gamble, but, with support from his wife (who was his first reader), he made the leap and never looked back. Books on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and presidents Truman and Adams followed He also began introducing and narrating historical programs—“Smithsonian World,” and then “American Experience”—for public television. Today, David McCullough is the recognized dean, and probably the most widely read, historian in America.

Alvin started plugging away at his Nez Perce book in the early 1950s—while working full time and climbing the editorial ladder at American Heritage. His books were written at a slower pace—The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest was a dozen years in the writing—because he had the other jobs, and because he was becoming an advocate for Indians as well as historian. But the “other job” at American Heritage allowed him to weigh in, as editor, editor in chief of book division, editor of the magazine, on a wide range of subjects that interested him, from the history of flight and seafaring to wars and civilizations. It allowed him to make his marks in American history in many ways—choosing topics and writers for books and the magazine, and hiring the likes of McCullough!

It also gave him access to organizations and individuals promoting Indian rights, and he was soon on the board at the Heye Museum of the American Indian, giving speeches at the National Congress of the American Indian, working with the Native American Rights Fund, and consulting on Indian affairs to Stuart Udall under President Kennedy and directly for President Nixon.

The interesting thing about Alvin is that through it all, a big part of him worked away at being a narrative historian. He did write Patriot Chiefs and the Nez Perce book, and, eventually, a landmark historical treatise on the Civil War in the West. He worked on a Hudson’s Bay history project, which was aborted by the death of Happy Rockefeller (but that is another story!), and there are 13 huge folders of material and manuscripts for articles and a book on the Sioux in the Josephy Archives at the University of Oregon.

I believe that what drove McCullough in his writing and his public television presentations, and what drove Alvin, as an editor, publisher, and historian, is a similar view of history. They both believed in narrative history, well researched and showing all sides of historical events and the people involved in them. More importantly, it was history as a living thing, a series of men’s and women’s actions and choices rather than of predetermined events and glories. McCullough summed it up in the Paris Review interview I quoted last time around:

“In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next… No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.”

That view drove McCullough to serious history; it drove Josephy to history—and to activism!