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 http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/mapping/historical_maps/1825.asp. 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!