TALKING WITH HERMAN J. VIOLA
As a child, Herman Viola found Indians so fascinating that he recalls his mother referred to him as “a reincarnated Native American.” He credits his interest, however, to his parents’ decision to take him, “as a colicky baby,” to the movies. They were Italian immigrants who watched movies as a way of helping them learn English. They also discovered that young Herman would stop crying when he became absorbed in the cinematic tales of cowboys and Indians. Later, he studied at Marquette University and took courses with Francis Paul Prucha, a noted scholar of Indian-white relations. Under Father Prucha’s direction, Viola wrote his doctoral dissertation on T.L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian Trade in the early nineteenth century.
As director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives (and later as curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution), Viola spent years absorbing the government’s account of Indian affairs. When he learned that Native Americans seldom had the means to visit the Smithsonian’s holdings, he raised funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Rockefeller Foundation to assist them. Subsequently about 85 members from 10 tribes used the archives. “In return,” Viola says, “they gave me their friendship and shared the gift of their stories.” Some are included in Little Bighorn Remembered.
Viola has been planning this volume for 20 years, but, initially, publishers doubted that he could bring new insights to the overworked subject of the Little Bighorn. Finally Viola introduced his close friend Joseph Medicine Crow–who had known five of Custer’s six Crow scouts–to staff members at Random House, and gained a contract. “To return the gift to my Indian friends,” Viola and his associates will distribute a portion of the royalties from the book to institutions of higher learning that serve the four tribes whose stories form the basis of this splendid volume.