Alvin Josephy: A gentle, graceful advocate for sovereignty

  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 people.

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.

The 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 ourselves.

Rebecca A. Miles is a contributor to Writers on the Range. She is chair of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee and lives in Lapwai, Idaho.