In a time of significant change for the Nez Perce people of north-central Idaho, a great friend and advocate has left us. The death of historian Alvin M. Josephy at age 90 on Oct. 16 touches our hearts and calls us to reflect on the importance of his life.
I was a child when my grandfather, David Miles Sr.,
and Josephy became close friends. That was many years ago, but
since then, many Nez Perce have counted him as a friend.
Josephy was a Marine Corps combat correspondent during World War
II. After the war, he became a Time magazine
editor. He loved the West and was fascinated by Indian history,
penning books that told our story with passion and skill. His
writing, as well as his gentle, graceful example, had an impact on
many levels of society.
Josephy was a complete man: His
research and knowledge of Indian people led him to act. His 1965
book, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, made
his reputation as an expert on Indian history; from then on, he
used his influence to positively affect the future of Indian
In 1969, he advised Interior Secretary Stewart
Udall and wrote a report for President Richard Nixon explaining
Indians’ ongoing fears of "termination," a policy developed
under Eisenhower during the 1950s. More than 100 tribes lost
federal recognition and tribal land holdings when they were
involuntarily "assimilated" into white culture.
policy, in theory, had ended by the 1960s, but many tribes feared
its revival. Josephy explained the history of this destructive
policy, and his report contributed to the Nixon
administration’s new approach, called "self-determination,"
which fostered political autonomy and cultural survival.
Josephy helped others to understand that tribes were sovereign
nations before Europeans arrived on the continent and that
fundamentally they remain so today. The government did not "give"
tribes their rights and powers; they hold them inherently and
retain them in their treaties. Reservation lands were also not
given to tribes; they were retained by the tribes and represent
important parts, if often sad remnants, of former homelands.
Great men and women are inspiring because of their
example, and sometimes they provoke us to do our part. A brave
man’s actions remind us how seldom courage is asked for in
our lives. Alvin Josephy inspired me to learn where we came from,
and where we ought to go to honor our ancestors, our children, and