American Indian Historian Alvin Josephy Jr. Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Alvin M. Josephy Jr., 90, a prolific historian on Native American affairs who also was a war correspondent, screenwriter and government consultant, died Oct. 16 at his home in Greenwich, Conn. No cause of death was disclosed.

While picture editor at Time magazine in the early 1950s, Mr. Josephy often journeyed to the American West. He was struck by what he considered the disastrous results of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's policy ending the autonomy of reservations, but he had trouble appealing to publisher Henry Luce to do a large spread on Native Americans.

Mr. Josephy wrote in his 2000 memoir, "A Walk Toward Oregon," that Luce called the Indians " 'phonies' because they refused to give up their reservation and live like everyone else."

During the next several years, he conducted interviews on his own time with members of the Nez Percé tribe of the Pacific Northwest. "They were happy to talk to you as long as you weren't a dope," he once said.

He bought a retreat in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon, the ancestral home of the Nez Percé, and used that as a base for his research. He was particularly drawn to the story of Chief Joseph, the 19th-century Nez Percé leader whose negotiated surrender with the U.S. Army culminated in his stirring concession: "From where the sun now stands, I shall fight no more forever."

After leaving Time in the late 1950s, Mr. Josephy was a senior editor of American Heritage books and then editor-in-chief of American Heritage magazine. He devoted much of his time to writing about Native Americans in such books as "The Patriot Chiefs" (1961), "Chief Joseph's People and Their War" (1964), "The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest" (1965), "Red Power: The American Indians' Fight for Freedom" (1971) and "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" (1982).

Herbert Mitgang, reviewing that last title in the New York Times, called Mr. Josephy the "leading non-Indian writer about Native Americans."

Mr. Josephy's work captured the attention of government officials, including Interior Department Secretary Stewart L. Udall. He became a consultant on federal policy toward Indians, even writing a study on the status of Indian affairs for President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon wanted to reverse the Eisenhower-era policies that he felt tarnished the Republican Party, Mr. Josephy wrote.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Josephy was founding board chairman of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. He played a major role in designing the educational and research aspects of the museum, which opened last year on the Mall.

Mr. Josephy was born May 18, 1915, in Woodmere, N.Y. His father, a mechanical engineer, joined another relation in a poultry shipping business. On his mother's side was a family of publishers, including uncle Alfred A. Knopf of the book company, and grandfather Samuel Knopf, a founder of American Mercury magazine.

He attended Harvard University after graduating from the private Horace Mann School in 1932. A change in family fortunes during the Depression led him to abandon Harvard after his sophomore year.

He drove across the country to Hollywood, where an uncle in the movie business helped him became a junior writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He recalled working on "idiotic scripts about dancing bras and panties" for short musicals.

That brief work was followed by an unhappy stint in a Wall Street brokerage house and a fun assignment as a newspaper correspondent in Mexico, arranging an interview with the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

After work as a Marine Corps combat correspondent in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to Hollywood scriptwriting. He also wrote for a chain of weekly newspapers near Hollywood, where mob figures threatened his boss for investigating the activities of local bookies.

Mr. Josephy turned the tale into a screenplay. The subsequent film, "The Captive City" (1952), was directed by Robert Wise and starred John Forsythe as a crusading newspaperman. The film gained some attention for featuring a cameo by then-Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), who was chairman of the Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce.

At a dinner party soon after, Mr. Josephy was lured to Time. His interest in Indian affairs evolved slowly, partly because of few available resources. The books that existed, he wrote, were "shelved in the natural history section of the bookstore, along with books about snails and dinosaurs, that sort of thing."

His first marriage, to the former Rosamond Eddy, ended in divorce. His wife of 56 years, Elizabeth Peet Josephy, died last year.

Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Diane Josephy Peavey of Carey, Idaho; three children from his second marriage, Allison Wolowitz of Old Greenwich, Conn., Katherine Josephy of Enterprise, Ore., and Alvin M. Josephy III of Olympia, Wash.; a brother; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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