Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Josephy meets the Indian President, Lazaro Cardenas

Lázaro Cárdenas, presidente de México entre 1934 y 1940
In Alvin’s memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon, it sounds like his introduction to Indians is that chance 1951 or ‘52 meeting in Lapwai, Idaho, with the young Nez Perce man, Dan Stevens, Jr. With a nod, to be sure, to the Navajo code talkers he met in the Pacific in World War II.

He does talk about his meetings with Trotsky and President Cardenas in Mexico in 1937, but by the time of the memoir, written in 2000 and published in 2001, Trotsky loomed larger in his mind—and probably ours—than did the long ago Indian president of Mexico. We now have a copy of Alvin’s October 1937 piece on Cardenas in Literary Digest (thanks to intern Dave Struthers, who wound his way through webs to get to the story and get us a copy!). And how I wished I had seen and read it years ago!

It always astounds me that Alvin was 22 years old when he made that Mexico trip. He had a friend with a car and money enough, and a press pass from the New York Herald Tribune—with the offer to maybe buy stories and pay him by the column inch for what they published. He aimed at Trotsky, who was living in the house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, dealing with his American secretary (the novelist Bernard Wolfe; Barbara Kingsolver deals with this in her novel, The Lacuna), from New York, and then, on the road in Mexico, sending him a requested list of questions before he finally got the interview. 

The arrangement with Cardenas was also worked out on the road, made with an undersecretary of foreign relations—the undersecretary had no use for the New York Times correspondent, Frank Kluckhohn, who he accused of rabble rousing against the Mexican government. So he arranged the interview with Cardenas, and also helped Alvin with a train trip around the country with the Minister of Finance, a tour celebrating the results of a radical land reform program.

The important fact today is that Lazaro Cardenas was the President of Mexico and he was an Indian! He had nationalized oil companies, which made him a potential bad guy on our side of the border. And he had reduced the military’s budget and increased spending on education! One last interesting tidbit—Cardenas deported a bunch of corrupt government officials to the United States. His ideas meshed nicely with Josephy’s own political conversion to Roosevelt and the New Deal. But let’s hear what Alvin had to say in his October 1937 article in Literary Digest:

LAZARO CARDENAS is today more than President of Mexico. He personifies a peculiar nationalism, first aroused in 1910 and known now as the Revolution—with a capital "R." Cardenas represents the latest and most sweeping phase of a 400-year struggle to give Mexico back to the native Indian.

Halfway along in his administration and barred by law from running for reelection in 1940, Cardenas is taking great strides along a path of reform, mapped for him back in 1910, when sweat-begrimed peons marched out of the fields to the strains of "La Cucuracha," behind the revolutionary flag of Land and Liberty. Today, by the sons of those peons, this big, broad-shouldered man, with the dark skin of a fullblooded Tarascan Indian, is regarded as the Mexican Revolution come true….

Talking recently with Cardenas gave me the same impression. Very reserved, Cardenas is a sharp contrast to most nationalist rulers. As a democrat, he abhors ostentation. When he fell in love with his wife, he postponed their wedding until it could be performed without political fanfare….

Cardenas isn't interested in… foreign claims. In 1500, he says, all Mexican land belonged to the Indians. From 1500 to 1910 that land was stolen from them by foreigners without compensation. Cardenas does not recognize the period from 1500 to 1910. As far as he's concerned, all land in Mexico still belongs to the Indians

As I said, Alvin was 22.  He had done a prodigious amount of research for the interviews while still in the States, background research about the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War when he asked Trotsky whether he would participate in a United Front in Spain. He knew about the Mexican revolution and Cardenas’s rise to power.

And he knew that Cardenas was an Indian. And I never got to ask him what kind of influence that had on his later life as historian and Indian advocate.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK and the Indians

I remember Alvin Josephy saying many times that the white liberals who had joined the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King did not understand the Indian situation. To paraphrase him, “As the Civil Rights movement gained strength and won some victories, white liberals thought they could just transfer ideas and tactics over to Indian affairs. But there was a fundamental difference. Indians didn’t want their ‘civil’ rights, but their ‘sovereignty,’ the treaty rights and at least some of the land that had been stolen from them.”

Another constant theme of Alvin’s: “From the beginning Indians had three choices: become white—assimilation; move, across the Mississippi, further west, to reservations—removal; or extermination.” From the beginning, Euro-Americans who wanted to treat Indians fairly often thought the best way to do so was to assimilate them. Their assumption was that Indians had lost the continent, white civilization was on the march, and Indians were obliged to join the parade. Alvin’s boss at Time Magazine, Henry Luce, thought Indians who resisted this maxim were “phonies,” and should just get on with adapting. Alice Fletcher, the famous “measuring woman” among the Nez Perce who had actually written some of the Dawes, or Allotment, Act, had in mind to make every Indian a Jeffersonian farmer. She appreciated Indian cultures—some of the ethnographic work she did among the Omaha and other Plains tribes on Indian songs and dances is still available in Dover Books. But the Indian solution, in her mind, was assimilation. The culture would go to textbooks and museums.

Even photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis felt that Indian cultures were “vanishing,” and sought to keep as many of them as possible alive in words and images. To Curtis’s credit, his time of work, the years on either side of 1900, were probably the nadir for Indians. According to the US Census Bureau, there were only 237,196 Indians left in the country in 1900.

Indians have not disappeared—Fletcher and Curtis would both be happy with that. And in fact their resurgence did have something to do with the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King was aware of Indian history, which he naturally interpreted in racial terms in his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.  

King trumpeting the Indian story nationally in such graphic terms had to have had an impact. And Indians did follow what was happening with American blacks. The NCAAP, the oldest civil rights group, was formed in 1908. NCAI, the National Congress of American Indians, the first national Indian lobby, was formed in 1944, and NARF, the Native American Rights Fund, was modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the mid-sixties, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, sovereignty and treaty rights, not always secure, not always playing out the Indian way, are acknowledged and of moment across the country—with a much greater understanding by white liberals. It’s all speculation, but one might argue that AIM, Alcatraz, the second Wounded Knee, none of it would have happened without the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. And the way King brought Alvin’s third Indian alternative—extermination, or, in 20th century terms, genocide—to the fore has certainly had a sobering influence on policy makers and Indians themselves over the last 50 years.

As King and Indian leaders would say, there is still much work to do, but we are a long way from 1900 and a “vanishing race.”

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

New Intern—and a Life Magazine find

Dave Struthers, a recent graduate of Stanford University from Sacramento, California, is our new Josephy Library intern. He started yesterday, and we started him tracking down the Time Magazine “color” spreads that Alvin did from 1951-61. We have about a dozen old mags here, with color articles on Oceanography, The Interstate Highway System, the Amazon, Central Asia, US National Forest, The Amazon, etc. In a note from the publisher in one issue, Alvin is credited with traveling 400,000 miles in four years on such assignments!

In this, Alvin’s “centenary year,” we aim to get all of the Time Magazine issues he had anything to do with—my recollection is that he was charged with doing one 8-12 page color spread per month. Maybe we can eventually figure out how to post them electronically…

July 2, 1971

But I couldn’t resist a morning diversion, and the result of which, courtesy Dave, is that we can give you, electronically, the complete article that Alvin wrote for Life Magazine July 2, 1971, “The Custer Myth.” Again a recollection—why didn’t I write this stuff down at the time!—is that Alvin was at the Custer Battlefield in conjunction with the making of “Little Big Man,” the Dustin Hoffman film, for which he was a technical advisor. He was traveling with Indian friends, most likely people who were involved with making the movie, people who shriveled as the “interpreter” called Crazy Horse a “savage.”  Here is the entire magazine article in digital form. Notice that Alvin uses the occasion to publish a photo of the mass grave at Wounded Knee in 1890.

                                                                  More to come!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Following Indians in 2015

Alvin Josephy passed almost a decade ago, but I visit his writing and thinking almost daily. I think about the questions I didn’t ask, the conversations that could have been longer, and tying it all to today. Mostly, I think “Alvin, you are right on.”

Over some time in the 1990s and early 2000s, Alvin was interviewed by friend and Southwest writer, activist, and radio producer Jack Loeffler, and in one of those interviews Alvin reminded Jack and radio listeners that there are many “traditional” American values—think neighborliness, tolerance, and equal opportunity. Few would argue with any of these, but Alvin said that we have largely forgotten them in the frenzied pursuit of and insistence on one value, “competition.”

From the NFL to “American Idol,” high school GPAs and SAT scores to job promotions and juried art shows, we are surrounded by and deeply immersed in competition. Held in check by fair play and good neighborliness, “friendly” competition is benign, maybe even good. But stripped of the others, running amok, it is poison.

It is Kenneth Lay accumulating wealth and political power, manipulating gas markets, bilking investors, selling his Enron shares high while encouraging employees to keep buying them as their value dropped, and, in his fall, taking down other companies and ruining retirements for thousands of Enron employees. Convicted of fraud, Lay died at 64 of a supposed heart attack while awaiting sentencing at a Colorado ski resort.

When competition is the final measure, friendship, ethics, and citizenship are all out the window, and fame and money reign—how else to measure a movie actor against a CEO, a homerun hitter, or a social program originator. How easy to understand Lay, Lance Armstrong and Mark Maguire and a host of other cheaters. And how strenuously the cheaters fight off guilt—in the end, it seems Kenneth Lay felt little guilt for the people he’d cheated; he might have felt bad about getting caught.

But, heading into the New Year, I don’t feel so clean myself. Knowing all we know about professional and big college football, I find myself following the Oregon Ducks and the Seattle Seahawks. We know that players get hurt—sometimes seriously hurt, and sometimes, we are learning, the hurt plays out years later, in ALS, Parkinson’s, dementia, and destructive rage. Junior Seau grew up where I did, in Oceanside, California, and mutual friends say his suicide was not part of his original personality. Friend Terry Crenshaw died with ALS in his fifties—did his years of football contribute?

But we watch…. and we get emotionally tied up with teams and players. We join with other fans in cheers and dress and reactions to the game. We share in the fame—entire cities and states and regions share in the fame. We want our guy—Russell Wilson in Seattle—to best the bigger guys with bigger salaries from Eastern and Midwestern powerhouses. We win the Heisman Trophy for best college football player with Marcus Mariota, and will be cheering with each other in front of a big screen TV on New Years Day for Marcus and his Ducks to destroy Florida State.

Pure Gladiator. There is something primal in these emotions that push competition to the limits and allow fans and bystanders to glory in others’ achievements. But, like many values and virtues, the importance accorded this one waxes and wanes—teamwork, order, spirituality, equality, come along and show their stuff. The Coliseum is replaced by the cathedral or parliament, the printing press, agricultural improvement, art and science. Society, culture, and the public gain on the individual.

Again, Alvin Josephy put it succinctly. Indians, he said, are the only Americans still capable of “group think,” of thinking for the tribe. He told me that in relation to the drug and alcohol problem, which he thought would be solved first on reservations.

There are certainly millions of Americans who want to see the drug problem solved, who want better wages and more equitable treatment for low income neighbors, want health care for all and a world full of wonder and natural resources for their grandchildren. But these things can’t really happen until competition is harnessed, put back in a place where it is reasonable rather than defining, and lives comfortably alongside other values.

I don’t know where this starts. Competitive forces are pushing for national college playoff games and we look for “winners” in complex diplomatic and combat situations across the globe. I would like to think that my own better nature—and that of millions of others—will eventually turn away from the gladiators and join the Indians. How to get there? Follow the Indians?

Maybe this year, in 2015.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Year end summary--and plea!

Hello friends,

We’ve been at it for a bit over two years now at the Josephy Center. The Center has a vigorous program of events and exhibits, and the Library, in addition to its archival work and dealing with students, writers, and researchers, is very involved with overall programs. Last year we featured Josephy tapes and stories in a “Remembering World War II” exhibit, and this spring we will pay more attention to Alvin—and his career at Time and American Heritage—with a May exhibit built around the “50s” and a collaborative art exhibit with the Nez Perce National Historic Park on the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary (Alvin was involved in the Park establishment too).  May will mark Alvin’s Centenary—he was born in 1915! We are soliciting Alvin—and Betty—stories for archives, and possibly for some kind of book. We have scheduled Jaime Pinkham for a joint Josephy Center—Fishtrap “Josephy Lecture” in June. Jaime will address natural resource issues through tribal eyes. The Josephy Center thrives!

The Library has books on the shelves, papers in boxes (with some cataloging going on right now), and we are about to create a small standing exhibit built around the Nez Perce story and Alvin’s work as historian and activist. Just this week I am in an interesting email conversation with a Nez Perce tribal member doing research on historical grieving processes of her tribe. Visitors have included a descendent of C.E.S. Wood, and a Road Scholar crew. We have an intern coming in January. Things at the Library itself are busy.

All of this to bring you up to date on goings on here—and to ask for your continuing support. Many of you have received the annual giving letter from Executive Director Cheryl Coughlan. Please respond as you can if you have not already done so. And for those of you who are only electronically connected through this email list and the Library Blog activities, I invite you to join the party.  You can drop a check in the mail to Josephy Center/ PO Box 949/ Joseph, Oregon 97846, or you can make a quick trip to our web site donation page—http://josephy.org/support-the-josephy-center-for-arts-and-culture/.

In either case, do what you can—and have a wonderful holiday season!