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.

Bobbie Conner new Board Chair at NMAI

Some of you might have already heard, but it is worth repeating! Roberta “Bobbie” Conner is the incoming Chair of Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. She has been on the Board since 2008, co-facilitated a Tribal museum directors meeting at NMAI in January, and will chair her first Trustees meeting February 9 and 10 in Washington D.C.

I have known Bobbie primarily through working on the Nez Perce Homeland project in Wallowa, where she and I are still board members. But she also gave a lecture on “Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes” at Fishtrap, and she was in fact one of the writers in Alvin’s last book, the one he and Marc Jaffe edited called Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes. And I had the great good fortune to work with Bobbie, Alvin, Cliff Trafzer, other historians and Tribal elders and editor Jennifer Carson on Wiyaxayxt / Wiyaakaaawn / As Days Go by: Our History, Our Land, Our People: the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.

I’ll put in a plug for that book while I’m at it. Each section paired an elder with a recognized historian, and each section had an outside reviewer. My role was as reviewer, but meeting with the “team” of elders and historians to discuss the project in its beginnings, and meeting again to review progress were privileged experiences. The project started in 2000–largely, I am sure, because of Bobbie’s vision and hard work–and the book was published by the University of Washington Press in 2006.

Bobbie is Cayuse, Umatilla and Nez Perce and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla. Her maternal great grandparents were from the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries. She is a graduate of Pendleton High School, the University of Oregon, and Willamette University’s Graduate School of Management. She left a fast-rising career at the U.S. Small Business Administration–among other positions, she directed the Sacramento District—to become the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in April 1998. (And if you have not visited that marvelous place, please put it on your must see list. Check the web site at .)

Of course what completes this circle is that Alvin was the founding board chair at NMAI. Some of that tale is told in A Walk Towards Oregon, how it started with the Heye Museum in New York City, and went through twists and turns that landed the greatest collection of indigenous American artifacts—the Heye collection is said to have numbered a million such—on the Mall in Washington D.C. You can feel Alvin’s hand in the way the museum is a living thing, with history from the Indian point of view and contemporary portrayals of Tribal culture and activities. Visit it if you are ever in the District. I see by my emails that a celebration of chocolate, one of the West’s great contributions to world food and culture, is in the works this February.

And congratulations of course to Bobbie for this well deserved honor. And good luck in the job!