Friday, November 18, 2011

Alvin and the occupiers

This might be dangerous. Many of you—Alvin Josephy’s friends and followers—might not be political at all, or are primarily interested in Alvin as a historian and advocate for Indian peoples, and don’t care about his politics outside of Indians. But I am reading Alvin material every day, and he was so bound up in the major issues of his times—from the Depression through World War 2, from dignity and self-determination for Indians to a concern for the physical world that he learned from Indians and carried with him to the pages of Audubon Magazine and Congressional Testimony—that it is impossible to look at Alvin Josephy without thinking about politics.

I am going to lean on material from interviews with Alvin’s friend, Jack Loeffler. Most of the interviews occurred in 1995, but there is some later material too, from 2001. In their rambling conversations Alvin recounts some of the major events in his life—in 1995 he was deep into writing the memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon—and reflects on the condition of Indians, the country, and the world in 1995 and 2001. All quotes below are from the interviews. (We have both audio cd and 56 page printout at the Library.)

Alvin was born in 1915, went to public school through his first eight years, where he learned “reading , writing, arithmetic, regular courses that were turning people of all backgrounds into Americans and making them all feel like they were members of the same country and patriotic about it.” And he continues: “we split at the end of eighth grade into long lines of inequality.”

Alvin went on to get a fine education at Horace Mann School, and then to Harvard for two years, before a bank failure in New York and the death of his grandfather, Samuel Knopf, depleted all college money for Alvin and his brother. Even though his family had been one of means, at Harvard he learned that the “Cabots and the Lowells and the Calloways and so forth... knew each other because they had all gone to the same prep schools—St. Paul’s and Milton and Groton,” and they were the “kings of the class.” He called them the “snobs.”

But this crew went through the Depression and through WW 2, and “by the time of our 25th reunion, these guys who had been snobs were Democratic as hell... They had become the type of people who were the great leaders of our war effort…” And then, “By the time of our 50th reunion, these people were fighting mad liberals. I mean they were environmentalists… They were people giving to causes... They were like the cabinet members of Roosevelt and Truman and Eisenhower, that decent type of Republicanism that’s vanished or almost vanished. It’s very hard to find in either party.”

Alvin was proud of his classmates and his generation. And of the people he served with during the War. David Rockefeller, whom he met at Harvard, served with him on the original Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian Board, and Alvin served on the board of Friends of the Earth with others from this generation that had beat back the forces of Fascism and Imperialism and were trying to bring that energy to domestic problems in America.


Alvin and his generation had a good long fight, but by 1995 he was expressing discouragement as the corporations and the wealthy seemed to be bringing the country back to where he had picked it up as a young convert to Roosevelt’s New Deal. For him, the lessons the country had learned through the Depression, the New Deal, and World War 2 were being lost—especially by the new corporate and political class.

“When the Republicans say today the American People want the government off their backs, they’re lying. What they’re really saying is the corporate giants, the CEOs of this country, want the government off their backs. Sure, so they can abuse the rest of us…. The whole thing is being delivered into the hands of the cartels and a smaller number of people.”

Words that could be a quote from one of today’s occupiers!

Although there was deep political sadness in Alvin those last years, he found some reason for optimism. First the resilience of the American people, who had come back from a terrible Civil War and made it through the Depression.

And secondly, the continuing presence of the American Indian. Indians, Alvin often said, can still think for the tribe. I believe his greatest wish, and maybe even a deep final faith, held that the country would find its way back to Indian ideas of sustainability, and of living with the earth and with each other in closer harmony...

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