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!