Thursday, June 4, 2015

Alvin Josephy, the Listening Man

Gordie High Eagle, Millie Zollman, Albert Barros 
On Sunday at the Josephy Center we honored Alvin with Nez Perce drums and talk and a new exhibit highlighting some of the milestones in his life. This all followed the opening of a splendid Nez Perce Art Show. The show, mounted in celebration of the Nez Perce National Historical Park’s Fiftieth Anniversary, features art that tribal members make for each other—the buckskin shirt, cornhusk bag, moccasins, beaded horse regalia and headdresses worn for ceremony and parade. It’s here for June, then goes to the History Center in Lewiston, Idaho.

The Josephy exhibit stays put!

And, it seems to me, the story it tells—and the honoring of him on Sunday made this explicit—is that Alvin Josephy was a “listener.”

Bobbie Conner, the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation, spoke emotionally about conversations between her grandfather and Alvin in the 50s and 60s. Alvin, she said, listened to Indians, and tried until the very end, especially with his work at the National Museum of the American Indian, to get  Indians to tell their own stories and the rest of us to listen to them. On his visit at the opening of Tamástslikt, she said, Alvin commented on it portraying the “Indian” side of the story. He hoped that the national museum would do the same.

Cliff Trafzer, who holds an endowed chair in Indian studies at my alma mater, UC Riverside, says much the same thing in the introduction to the history section of a Josephy Reader Marc Jaffe and I are working on. When white historians were busily restating what other white men—it was mostly men, although we must remember Alice Fletcher and a few others—had said about Indians, Josephy took the “radical” step of listening, of asking Indians for their stories, the stories passed down in families and at tribal gatherings, sometimes for millennia.

In Alvin’s last book, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, he asked Indians to do that, to tell their family and tribal stories about Lewis and Clark. We know the Captains’ and the Corpsmen’s stories pretty well by now, but no one, Alvin wrote in reviewing Stephen Ambrose’s  Undaunted Courage for the New York Times, had bothered to ask the Indians about their side of Lewis and Clark’s journey.

So he and fellow editor Marc Jaffe did ask them. And produced a delightful collection of the personal and the tribal. Once, shortly after publication of the book, one of the Indian essayists and storytellers asked me what I thought of it. I told her I loved her piece and liked most of the pieces in the book very much, but I did express a little disappointment in one author. She put her finger in my chest and told me in no uncertain terms that Alvin had asked Indians to tell their stories as they had been told and wanted them told in their families and tribes, not “the stories you white guys want to hear.”

I retreated. She had said it all.

On Sunday, young Alvin, or Alvin Josephy III, talked about his father’s early dream of becoming a journalist. In the memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon, Josephy says something about newsprint and ink “getting in his blood.” The early interviews—for his high school newspaper—of H.L. Mencken and others—exhilarated him, and must have given him courage to go off and get stories from President Cardenas and Leon Trotsky in Mexico, in 1937, when he was 22 years old!

And the listening and the courage carried him to WOR Radio, to Archibald McLeish’s war propaganda department, to the Marine Corps and Guam and Iwo Jima. It took him to Time Magazine and to the Nez Perce story. Alvin was touring Lewiston with the local bigwigs, and it included a stop at the Nez Perce tribal agency headquarters. The young man at the agency desk, Bill Stevens, on learning that Alvin was with Time Magazine, asked him if he knew the Nez Perce Story.

Alvin listened—and the line of his listening lead directly to our listening, over 60 years later, to the Nez Perce artists and drummers this weekend in Joseph, Oregon.

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