Friday, July 01, 2005

"A Walk Toward Oregon" by Alvin Josephy Jr.

Since John Jackson claims Alvin Josephy, Jr., as a mentor, perhaps this would be a good time to explain who he is. Centers for Native American material often develop where a university is in a place that Indian history is recent (like Western state universities) and where the student body might include a lot of Indians, or sometimes a university where Indian history was part of the founding of the institution like Dartmouth or Harvard. But also a specific personality might be charismatic and well-connected enough to attract people who think about Indians as well as actual Indians. They don’t have to be anthropologists. Such a person is Alvin Josephy, Jr., an Easterner from a publishing family. The index of this memoir is thirteen pages long and much appreciated since Josephy’s life is a complex of many layers over a long time.

Josephy’s memoir is called “A Walk Toward Oregon,” (published by Alfred A. Knopf -- one of his good connections since it was his family’s business -- and copyright 2000. ISBN 0-375-40910-6). Oregon is where he finally formed his best connection of all: to the Nez Perce tribe. His other books include: “The Patriot Chiefs,” “The Indian Heritage of America” (American Heritage Library), “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” “500 Nations: an Illustrated History Of North American Indians,” “America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus,” “American Heritage Book of Indians,” “The Artist Was a Young Man, the Life Story of Rindisbacher.” (Rindisbacher was an early 19th century depictor of the frontier and Indian life. This booklet was written to accompany an exhibit of his work.)

These are big, sprawly, authoritative, illustrated books that I have not read and don’t intend to buy. Libraries love them. “A Walk towards Oregon” is the sort of personal explanatory book that I seek out. Josephy’s story reminds me of Peter Matthiessen or even John Kerry, though he was Harvard rather than Yale and didn’t get a chance to finish because of the Depression. Like Richard S. Wheeler, his first try at a career was in Hollywood as a screen writer where he was buddies with Olivia de Haviland and Joan Fontaine, actress sisters. But the Depression hounded him (he was born in 1915) and he was reduced to a minor job on the stock exchange in New York. Then recovering, a newspaper reporter, and finally radio. He had a great time, made good contacts, and began to grow up. Then came war and a correspondent’s job. Now he was awakened, like many others.

But even post-war as he flew in small planes to search for spectacular views and good places to situate dams so as to photograph and write about them for magazines, he still didn’t understand what development could do to the American West. Finally Paul Nash, secretary of the Idaho Chamber of Commerce, flew him all over Idaho. Josephy found the Nez Perce and was hooked.

Now his desk-jockey research-informed tomes about Indians in general were balanced with the realities of a people displaced and brought down by what the country considered progress. This is the step that’s often missing from blueblood-written books about Indians. But, like Matthiessen, he connected the awakening conservation movement with Indian issues, he used his contacts politically to try to make a difference, and Wounded Knee was clearly a turning point. Josephy was present at the earlier siege of the BIA building and helped to prevent bloodshed by negotiating hard among leaders he knew on both sides.

The heart of the Josephy family’s world was a ranch they bought in Nez Perce country, close to the town of Joseph in the Wallowas in Oregon, where they tried to embody their principles and to do practical good for the tribal people, like taking some Indian kids for the summer. Even in this remote place, development caught up with them and the bulldozers came through. It will be up to the second generation at the ranch to recover and find safeguards for the future. Like so many places in the New West, it turned out that the glitzy leisure world of the rich was as much a hazard as the industrialists. Joseph is now a headquarters for art bronze foundries with fancy eating places and espresso cafes for the tourists, ski buffs, golfers, and New Age personalities.

Josephy, in his own way, is a member of the upper class of the national meritocracy. “Aristocrats” of this sort, especially in the romantic years after WWII, have sought out Indians, relating to them on vacations and junkets, acquiring their artifacts and enjoying their often scenic locations. Indians, consummate diplomats, have taken their own junkets to Washington since the earliest days. Earl Old Person, here in Browning, probably knows as many American big shots as the Pope did. He must have a formidable Rolodex and he knows it.

Those relationships are totally “other” than the local officials and ordinary white people who deal with Indians on the reservation, friendly or not. Anchored in the daily knowledge of individuals, the romance is pretty much missing, and sympathy over history is not necessarily present. What counts on this level is practical achievements: businesses, schools, tribal functions. Most of the people who make these organizations work are never known by people more than a few hundred miles away. No one puts them into an American Heritage volume. Yet they ARE the American heritage -- they embody it, both white and Indian. I think Alvin Josephy, Jr., was aware of this more than many other writers. It is what makes his memoir worth reading.

No comments: