Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Vine and Alvin

I stopped by Tamastslikt on my way to Portland to talk with curator Randall Melton about some Indian artifacts that Alvin Josephy had left for the Josephy Library at Fishtrap. In the course of conversation he said that he had met Alvin a couple of times, most importantly when he was a student and had gone to Boise for a conference at which Alvin and Vine Deloria were speakers. The day after the program, he had bumped into Vine and Alvin eating breakfast at Denny’s Restaurant, and the two elders had been gracious in talking with the young students.

Which reminded me that Alvin liked Denny’s—I’ve eaten a couple of meals with him and Betty at the same Boise spot—and it reminded me that Alvin and Vine served together on the Board of the Heye Museum of the American Indian in New York, and, when the merger with the Smithsonian occurred in 1989-90, both moved to the new Board of NMAI as original trustees.

I know the story is richer than that, and kick myself for not taking notes when Alvin returned from some of these meetings and gave fast reports on the proceedings. For instance, I know that Senator Inouye had a major role in the legislation authorizing the new museum, but I am not sure about the story of his involvement. Did Alvin tell me that the Senator became deeply committed when he learned that the existing Smithsonian contained the physical remains of over 16,000 indigenous Americans, and that the NMAI legislation was somehow coupled with the repatriation of remains and artifacts?

And did Alvin tell me that his being elected Chair occurred precisely because he was not a tribal member, and therefore not beholden to or representing any specific tribe? That is my recollection, that and the fact that Vine, who was of course enrolled as a Standing Rock Sioux, was the original Vice Chair, and that the two of them, both strong men with deep histories in Indian advocacy as well as history, agreed and disagreed, but worked together on that original Board of Trustees for the good of the museum and the ongoing true histories and her-stories
of Indian peoples and tribes.

Their names appear together in several other places. Vine has chapters in Red Power, a collection of important documents in the American Indians’ Fight for Freedom that Alvin edited, and in the last book that Alvin had a hand in, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. And I just read his “Afterword” to America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, another important collection of Indian voices and Indian subjects that Alvin got into print in time for the “celebration” (by some), and the more sober reflection by Indian peoples of consequences of Columbus.

In words that I think match and explain Alvin’s working philosophy and drive to bring real history to the public and dignity and justice to Indian peoples, Vine says this:

“The native peoples of the American continents suffered total inundation, lost a substantial portion of their population, and in coming into the modern world surrendered much of the natural life which had given them comfort and dignity. But they have managed to survive. Now, at a time when the virtues they represented, and continue to represent, are badly needed by the biosphere struggling to remain alive, they must be given the participatory roles which they might have had in the world if the past five centuries had been different.”

Some day,someone will write about the friendship and professional relationship of these two men, and about their impact on the course of Indian affairs in the broader story that is America.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

McCullough and Josephy—part 2

I mentioned in an earlier blog that Alvin hired David McCullough at American Heritage. I implied that Alvin began working for and hired David for the magazine, but in fact Alvin’s first job and his hire of David were in the book division of American Heritage. Alvin would later become editor of the magazine.

Parallels: David McCullough was a lit major in college, and had been a journalist with Sports Illustrated and the United States Information Agency when Alvin hired him at American Heritage. At some point, McCullough came across a batch of photos of the Johnstown flood. He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of that catastrophe, so his interest was aroused, and he went to the bookshelf. Finding no acceptable history of the event, he determined to write it himself. The Johnstown Flood was his first book.

Alvin was working at Time Magazine when he came across the Nez Perce story. He had been a print and radio journalist before the War and a Marine Corps correspondent during the War. He picked up all the available literature on the Nez Perce—and like McCullough with the Jamestown flood, found the books on the shelf wanting. Eventually, after finding Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs, first person accounts of Nez Perce history and the their war, Alvin determined to write the Nez Perce book himself.

Here is where paths part. David McCullough finished the Johnstown book, and, after three years at American Heritage, determined to make it in the world as a narrative historian. He knew it was a gamble, but, with support from his wife (who was his first reader), he made the leap and never looked back. Books on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and presidents Truman and Adams followed He also began introducing and narrating historical programs—“Smithsonian World,” and then “American Experience”—for public television. Today, David McCullough is the recognized dean, and probably the most widely read, historian in America.

Alvin started plugging away at his Nez Perce book in the early 1950s—while working full time and climbing the editorial ladder at American Heritage. His books were written at a slower pace—The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest was a dozen years in the writing—because he had the other jobs, and because he was becoming an advocate for Indians as well as historian. But the “other job” at American Heritage allowed him to weigh in, as editor, editor in chief of book division, editor of the magazine, on a wide range of subjects that interested him, from the history of flight and seafaring to wars and civilizations. It allowed him to make his marks in American history in many ways—choosing topics and writers for books and the magazine, and hiring the likes of McCullough!

It also gave him access to organizations and individuals promoting Indian rights, and he was soon on the board at the Heye Museum of the American Indian, giving speeches at the National Congress of the American Indian, working with the Native American Rights Fund, and consulting on Indian affairs to Stuart Udall under President Kennedy and directly for President Nixon.

The interesting thing about Alvin is that through it all, a big part of him worked away at being a narrative historian. He did write Patriot Chiefs and the Nez Perce book, and, eventually, a landmark historical treatise on the Civil War in the West. He worked on a Hudson’s Bay history project, which was aborted by the death of Happy Rockefeller (but that is another story!), and there are 13 huge folders of material and manuscripts for articles and a book on the Sioux in the Josephy Archives at the University of Oregon.

I believe that what drove McCullough in his writing and his public television presentations, and what drove Alvin, as an editor, publisher, and historian, is a similar view of history. They both believed in narrative history, well researched and showing all sides of historical events and the people involved in them. More importantly, it was history as a living thing, a series of men’s and women’s actions and choices rather than of predetermined events and glories. McCullough summed it up in the Paris Review interview I quoted last time around:

“In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next… No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.”

That view drove McCullough to serious history; it drove Josephy to history—and to activism!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

From the Wallowas to Germany and Buchenwald in WW II--Jack McClaran remembers

When I traveled to bookstores, libraries, and museums with Alvin Josephy after the publication of A Walk Towards Oregon, the chapter that drew the most consistent comment was the one on the War. Fellow marine and navy vets came up with their own memories of Guam and Iwo and Guadalcanal. They sometimes whispered, and tears from 80 year-old men with rough hands and 50 year careers as preachers and farmers were not uncommon.

Among Alvin and Betty’s closest Wallowa County friends were Jack and Marge McClaran. The McClarans had a ranch in Snake River country, and for most of their friendship, Betty was the summer mainstay on the Wallowa front while Alvin split his time between American Heritage in New York and the ranch on the Wallowa Lake moraine. The two couples were involved in a summer educational day camp, one to which Betty recruited, housed, and fed Indian kids from Lapwai. And when Alvin was here, they visited McClaran ranch sites and traded stories—Alvin’s later disagreement with Ed Abbey over cows probably owes to his “education” from Jack.

I don’t know when I first learned that Jack had been an army tanker who was in on the liberation of Buchenwald. Maybe in my bookstore days, when Jack would come in to talk philosophy and buy Christmas presents. Over the years I heard bits of it and suggested to him that he needed to share it with a wider audience, that today’s students and, increasingly, most of the adult population, are removed from WW II, that personal memories of the War and the Holocaust are being lost every day.

In 2009, I had stepped aside as Fishtrap director and Rick Bombaci convinced Jack that it was time to give his talk. Both Josephys were gone and his experience was 55 years old, but his memories were as sharp as cheese. Over 150 people showed up at the Odd Fellows Hall in Enterprise to hear Jack McClaran’s talk.

It started with Alvin, who had encouraged Jack with his own book and talking about their responsibilites to the next generation. Jack encouraged vets in the audience to share their own stories. Gearing up, he quickly went from his high school graduation and immediate induction in June of 1944 to 16 weeks of basic training in Texas and then to Germany and getting tanks across the Rhine River in the follow-up to the Normandy invasion. There was still plenty of war going on—after a temporary retreat for replacement tanks and troops, Jack remembered being one of 43 survivors in a force of some 100 or 110. Getting back in a tank, he said, was probably the hardest thing he had ever done.

He was just 19, and Buchenwald and Ilse Koch's work and a post war year in Germany were all ahead of him. I am going to leave it here, because Janis Carper has figured out a way to load an audio of the talk on our web site, and I want those who can to hear Jack speak. (If this does not work, let me know, and we will work something out.)

I listened again last week, and visited with Marge and Jack, now nearing 90, in their home. The story—and the mystery—that holds him still is how and why humans can be so brutal to other human beings. Buchenwald and over 100 other concentration camps were not the work of uneducated or underprivileged people from a left behind country, but educated “civilized” European people leading and being led to do inhuman things right in the heart of Western Europe.

As we talked, Jack’s thoughts returned to the mystery again, and to the question of the masses of German people who had denied any knowledge of the horrors in their back yards—the stench alone, Jack says, remembering still, should have told them.

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Click for the audio of Jack's talk:


click for my blog re Alvin and WW II:


Monday, February 6, 2012

Bobbie Conner new Board Chair at NMAI

Some of you might have already heard, but it is worth repeating! Roberta “Bobbie” Conner is the incoming Chair of Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. She has been on the Board since 2008, co-facilitated a Tribal museum directors meeting at NMAI in January, and will chair her first Trustees meeting February 9 and 10 in Washington D.C.

I have known Bobbie primarily through working on the Nez Perce Homeland project in Wallowa, where she and I are still board members. But she also gave a lecture on "Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes" at Fishtrap, and she was in fact one of the writers in Alvin’s last book, the one he and Marc Jaffe edited called Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes. And I had the great good fortune to work with Bobbie, Alvin, Cliff Trafzer, other historians and Tribal elders and editor Jennifer Carson on Wiyaxayxt / Wiyaakaaawn / As Days Go by: Our History, Our Land, Our People: the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.

I’ll put in a plug for that book while I’m at it. Each section paired an elder with a recognized historian, and each section had an outside reviewer. My role was as reviewer, but meeting with the “team” of elders and historians to discuss the project in its beginnings, and meeting again to review progress were privileged experiences. The project started in 2000--largely, I am sure, because of Bobbie's vision and hard work--and the book was published by the University of Washington Press in 2006.

Bobbie is Cayuse, Umatilla and Nez Perce and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla. Her maternal great grandparents were from the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries. She is a graduate of Pendleton High School, the University of Oregon, and Willamette University's Graduate School of Management. She left a fast-rising career at the U.S. Small Business Administration--among other positions, she directed the Sacramento District—to become the director of the Tam├ístslikt Cultural Institute in April 1998. (And if you have not visited that marvelous place, please put it on your must see list. Check the web site at http://Tamastslikt.com/ .)

Of course what completes this circle is that Alvin was the founding board chair at NMAI. Some of that tale is told in A Walk Towards Oregon, how it started with the Heye Museum in New York City, and went through twists and turns that landed the greatest collection of indigenous American artifacts—the Heye collection is said to have numbered a million such—on the Mall in Washington D.C. You can feel Alvin’s hand in the way the museum is a living thing, with history from the Indian point of view and contemporary portrayals of Tribal culture and activities. Visit it if you are ever in the District. I see by my emails that a celebration of chocolate, one of the West’s great contributions to world food and culture, is in the works this February.

And congratulations of course to Bobbie for this well deserved honor. And good luck in the job!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Josephy and David McCullough—the narrative historian

Always, for Alvin, “story” was the important notion in “history.” He insisted on accuracy, trusted the testimony of individuals, and was disgusted by some of the stilted prose and arcane argument of the academics. He loved the idea of history permeating our lives. And capturing its excitement and making it available to the greatest number of citizens was done by writing clean prose and telling good stories.

In 1961, Alvin left Time Magazine for an upstart hard cover magazine called American Heritage. In 1964, he hired a literature major from Yale who had worked for Sports Illustrated and the Unlisted States Information Agency to join him. Multiple Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards later, David McCullough would say that American Heritage was his “graduate school.”

In the fall of 1984, I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to sit in the audience as the Snake River Institute honored Alvin Josephy with a weekend of readings, speeches, films and discussions about "The Next Hundred Years in the American West." It was an august crew—George Horsecatcher and Terry Tempest Williams, Hal Cannon, Teresa Jordan, Jack Loeffler, Ed and Betsy Marston, Tim Egan, Bill Kittredge, Drum Hadley, Gary Snyder, David McCullough and more rose to say a few words about Alvin and read a poem or tell a story or think aloud about the West to come.

McCullough began with a story about American Heritage. He and Alvin were in the office during the big east coast power failure and resulting “blackout” of 1965, and the two of them carefully walked all of the office secretaries down flights of stairs and to their homes or safe stopping places. I think Ed Marston’s picture of Alvin and Teresa Jordan, later printed in High Country News, was their reaction to that story.

Alvin and David were obviously old friends, men who shared a notion of history, the importance of history, and the telling of it. McCullough went on to talk about history, and a Disney effort to own and control some Civil War sites—could history become commercial property in the next 100 years?

What McCullough didn’t detail that day was his transition from history editor and history lover to historian. I found the answer in a 1999 Paris Review interview.

He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of the Johnstown Flood, had later found a trove of photos of the flood at the Library of Congress, and gone back to read books. They didn’t match what he knew about Pennsylvania and Johnstown, and he resolved to write the story himself. But how to begin?

“One evening, in New York, at a gathering of writers and historians interested in the West, my boss, Alvin Josephy, pointed to a white-haired man across the room. He said, That’s Harry Drago. Harry Sinclair Drago. He’s written over a hundred books. I waited for my chance and walked over. Mr. Drago, I said, Alvin Josephy says that you’ve written over a hundred books. Yes, he said, that’s right. How do you do that? I asked. And he said, four pages a day. Every day? Every day. It was the best advice an aspiring writer could be given.”

David McCullough left American Heritage and went on to become the leading writer of popular, well researched narrative history books of our time, books on the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal, and Pulitzer Prize winning books on presidents Truman and Adams. He became a popular host of American Experience programs on Public Television, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor.

And throughout this distinguished career, McCullough has promoted and maintained the values of narrative history. In the Paris Review interview, he said that “The problem with so much of history as it’s taught and written is that it’s so often presented as if it were all on a track—this followed that. In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next… No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.”

On receiving a National Book Award, he put it this way: “There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: ‘Tell stories.” The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest mysteries—time and human nature.”

Alvin Josephy couldn’t have put it better.

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