GREENWICH, Conn. -- Just as memory is an essential component of
personality, history is crucial to the identity of a people. The late Alvin
M. Josephy Jr., one of the most influential historians of his time, helped
preserve the identities of the continent's Native peoples and opened a new
direction for the dominant culture.
The title of one of his best-known books explains his achievement. In
"Patriot Chiefs" (1961), he presented portraits of the great tribal leaders
Pontiac, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph and six others from their own viewpoint as
political leaders struggling to preserve their peoples, not as the "noble
savages" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or as predators of the frontier. This
work allowed Euro-Americans to start seeing their history with new eyes.
Europeans have often derided the United States as a shallow culture with no
historical roots. From the viewpoint popularized by Josephy, America gained
the depth of all human experience. Its roots go tens of millennia, to the
origins of mankind. These are living roots, preserved even today in tribal
ceremonials and religions, in a vital relation with nature and fellow
creatures which has long been severed in Western civilization. This history
gives America vastly greater depth than modern Europe itself, whose
colonizing ideologies have proved to be far more limited than they thought
Josephy, who died Oct. 16 at the age of 90, overcame these limits himself.
He was born into a well-connected New York family in 1915. (His uncle on
his mother's side was Alfred A. Knopf, founder of the publishing house of
that name.) He attended Harvard. Even though he was forced to drop out
after his sophomore year because of a Depression-era reversal in family
fortunes, he followed an Ivy League career path into the Time magazine of
But along the way he showed the courage that helped him surpass this
bounded viewpoint. During World War II he refused a medical deferment and
served as a Marine Corps combat correspondent, covering fighting on Guam
and Iwo Jima. He earned a Bronze Star medal. As photograph editor for Time,
he covered the West during the 1950s and was appalled at what he saw of the
social impact of the Eisenhower era's termination policy.
When Luce was reluctant to cover the devastation of American Indian life,
Josephy moved to American Heritage magazine, beginning his influential
career writing and promoting American history through Native eyes. After
the publication of "Patriot Chiefs," he caught the attention of federal
officials. He advised Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and wrote an
important report for President Richard Nixon that contributed to the
president's announcement of a "self-determination policy," a major turning
point in federal policy toward the tribes.
Josephy continued his prolific output on Indian history, concentrating on
his friends the Nez Perce Indians. (He bought a ranch as a seasonal retreat
near Wallowa Lake, Ore., in traditional Nez Perce territory.) He also lent
his name to a range of Indian institutions. He served on the national
advisory boards of the National Congress of American Indians, the National
Indian Youth Council, the Native American Rights Fund, the Association on
American Indian Affairs and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
He capped his numerous honors as the founding chairman of the board of
trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian, a true home for his
vision as well as for the self-expression of the tribes of the Americas.
Throughout, Josephy maintained a permanent home in Greenwich, Conn., on the
commuting line to the publishing center of New York City. Ironically, his
home state is now the latest battleground for Indian sovereignty. In spite
of massive documentation of lineage and history, three well-known and
recently federally acknowledged tribes have now been told by Interior that
they don't exist. And certain writers and local politicians vociferously
challenge the historical credentials of the tribes that still are
This revival of the termination policy reflects the hostility and
psychological denial of the affluent residents of Connecticut. In Angh
Lee's movie "The Ice Storm," set in Josephy's own Fairfield County, a
rebellious teenager played by Christina Ricci sardonically delivered the
Thanksgiving dinner grace: "Thank you, God, for letting us kill all the
Indians," satirizing the all-too-prevalent attitude that Native America is
a thing of the past, at best a subject of antiquarian curiosity.
The history that Josephy wrote refutes this attitude. By showing the tribes
and their leaders as living people, he also showed that they live on into
the present. Significantly, his latest works chronicled the Indian
resistance and revival of the present generation. He might have been one of
the first popular historians to adopt the Native viewpoint, but this
changed perspective is now widespread among both Native and non-Native
writers in and out of academia.
By helping to restore the memory of Native peoples and thus promoting the
survival of tribal identity, Josephy has earned honor in Indian country.