Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Custer Myth and Henry Luce

The July 2, 1971 issue of Life Magazine carried a story by Alvin Josephy called “The Custer Myth.”  In the late 1960s, during the filming of “Little Big Man,” for which Alvin was a technical advisor, he took some Indian friends to see the Custer Battlefield, While they looked at exhibits, the government “interpreters” went on about the battle, calling the Indians “savages,” and even intimating that some kind of plot to discredit the American military was sweeping the country (this was during the Vietnam War). 

The Indians became increasingly uncomfortable, muttering that “Crazy Horse was no savage, he was a great man.”  Alvin goes on to quote a Nez Perce friend about the importance of Custer to all American Indians:

"The white man’s knowledge of Indians is based on  stereotypes and false, prejudiced history. Custer is the best known hero of that myth to the whites. Therefore, to every Indian in the country, it is the biggest and most important symbol of all the lies that have been told about us. Destroy the Custer myth, the biggest one of all, and you’ll start getting an understanding of everything that happened and an end to the bias against the Indian people.”

Almost as interesting as the story and the point it makes about Custer and Indians is the managing editor’s preface to the entire magazine edition, billed as “The Fourth of July Special: The American Indian.”  It is especially interesting in light of Alvin’s remarks in his memoir about his boss at Time, Henry Luce. Luce, he said, didn’t like Indians, thought they were all “phonies” who should just get on with it and get assimilated!

In his preface to the 1971 issue, Life Managing Editor Ralph Graves says about Luce (interestingly enough, without naming him; and he had passed away a few years prior to this publication):

“One former managing editor of this magazine was a man of legendary likes and dislikes. One of the things he disliked was any story about American Indians, but one of the stories he couldn’t resist was any story about trains. For years his staff wondered what he would do if confronted by a marvelous picture of a railroad locomotive—with an Indian in full headdress seated in the cab. As far as anyone can remember, no one quite dared to offer him this impossible dilemma.”

For those of us looking for progress in Indian-white relations and understanding, I think we can say that the Custer myth—after many long and torturous years—is no longer widely believed by Americans of all colors. And Henry Luce’s great Life Magazine, which alas is no longer with us, was able to portray the people he thought “phony” in their own words and pictures before it bowed off the stage. 

And Alvin was there to help.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Finding Rupert’s Land

Marc Jaffe and I have been editing away on a book of Alvin Josephy’s writings for over a year. Our goal is to let Alvin show readers how Indians are intricately woven into the fabric of American history—they are not a “sideshow”; to explore Alvin’s explorations of Indians and natural resources; and to present a brief forum on the miracle of Indian survival.

The essays—some chapters from books; some magazine articles—are chosen, and introductions to sections by contemporary Indian thinkers who knew Alvin are done. We have a few illustrations, and the intention to use a couple of maps.

One of the essays is “The Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Indian.” Alvin argued that the Company and the fur trade overall had a lot to do with how America and American-Indian relations evolved. Our editor liked this, and thought it would be good to have a map to help people visualize just how extensive the fur trade—and specifically the Hudson’s Bay Company’s holdings and range of influence were.

To refresh briefly, fur was an immediate North American export to Europe. By the early 1600s Europe had decimated its own beaver population in the name of hats and fashion. The Dutch, the English, fishermen working the banks were all sending the occasional load of furs—and Indian slaves, but that is another story—back to the old countries. While tobacco fueled a plantation and export economy in the south, Russian ships were plying the Pacific coast for otter skins and beaver pelts, and some Europeans in today’s Northeast were making trapping and fur trading their primary economic activity. 

And, “By a Royal Charter, granted on May 2, 1670, the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay, became the ‘true and absolute Lordes and Proprietors’ of a vast portion of present-day Canada.” It was all called “Rupert’s Land.”

It was an extraordinary organization, and the movement of trade goods across the country, eventually over the Rockies and on to the Pacific Coast, and the movement of furs the other direction, were monumental. Read about David Thompson’s mapping of the West in Sources of the River, or about John Astor and the attempt to open a sea route and sea port at Astoria to make the movement of goods easier, and American history—and the adventurers, entrepreneurs, Indians and mixed bloods who were involved in the effort—takes on a different flavor. Those missionaries and settlers? Well, they wouldn’t have made it without all of above.

At any rate, in our effort to visualize, we wanted a map. And it turns out not to be so simple. A Canadian named Korsos recently spent a decade or more mapping over 2000 fur posts. Too much detail. Mapmakers show routes, they show forts, and they show boundaries. Sometimes they are guesses years before anyone has explored the territory. Sometimes they are Americans, Canadians, British, French, all jockeying for power and influence.

And things—like most of the fur trade—that end up on the Canadian side of the border don’t make it into our textbooks. And, bless the Canadians, they are not always so interested in what ends up on our side, though they certainly know more about us than we know about them.

But I am left with no good map of Rupert’s Land! Picking and scrabbling, we have found one good map that does much of what we want drawn for Jack Nisbet’s new book on David Douglas, but that mapmaker lives off the grid and is not readily available. And there is an interesting set of historical maps at Canadian Geographic. Check them out at I couldn’t get through the automated phone business, but I have written. Will keep you posted.

Meanwhile, if you have any ideas on Rupert’s Land, let me know!

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!