Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How do we keep learning from Alvin?


Alvin Josephy died in 2005. I read something that he wrote—or that was written to or about him—almost every day. And I am continually amazed by what he said and when and where he said it.

In Life Magazine in 1971, Josephy wrote that the US government interpreters were telling visitors at the Custer Battlefield that Custer was a hero and the Indians were savages; in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1973, just weeks after the FBI-Indian confrontation at Wounded Knee, he said that the Indians were justified, and published photos of Custer’s troops being buried with high ceremony and Sioux Indian survivors of the battle being slaughtered and buried in a mass grave. In 1992 he reminded—in speeches and a book, America in 1492—that Columbus came to a land of some 75 or 90 million people, over 2000 mutually unintelligible languages, and cities larger than any in Europe at the time. And that the learned clerics and academicians in Spain began an immediate “solemn intellectual discourse” concerning the Native peoples of the “so-called New World,” to determine whether its inhabitants were “human” or “sub-human” beings.

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)

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