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.