There’s a new history book that is rattling across the best seller lists. It’s a collection of essays called Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies about Our Past. There are 20 chapters on everything from “American Exceptionalism” to the “New Deal” and the “Southern Strategy.” The third chapter is “Vanishing Indians.”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.
# # #
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.
|Mass grave at Wounded Knee|
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)