American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Costo, Rupert

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Rupert Costo (Cahuilla, 1906–1989) was active in national and tribal politics, serving both as a vocal critic of the Indian New Deal in the 1930s and as tribal chairman of the Cahuillas in the 1950s; later, Costo became an important figure in Native American publishing.

As a football player in the 1920s at Haskell Institute and Whittier College (where he played with the future President Richard M. Nixon), Rupert Costo early in life demonstrated his athletic and intellectual aptitudes to the Indian and non-Indian world.

During the 1930s, California was a major center of opposition to Collier's Indian New Deal, and Costo was one of the principal leaders of the opposition. Costo believed that the Indian New Deal was a device to assimilate the American Indian; he believed that the Indian Reorganization Act was being used to colonize Native Americans because, in his view, genocide, treaty making and treaty breaking, substandard education, disruption of Indian culture and religion, and the Dawes Allotment Act had failed. Costo knew that partial assimilation already had taken place in Native societies through the use of "certain technologies and techniques," but he knew that total assimilation, which meant fading into the general society with a complete loss of culture and identity, was another thing altogether. Costo called the IRA, "The Indian Raw Deal" (Mails, 1990, 146).

For most of his working life, Costo was employed by the state of California in the Highway Department as an engineer. Upon his retirement, Costo and his wife, Jeannette Henry Costo (Eastern Cherokee,) founded the San Francisco–based American Indian Historical Society in 1964. The organization was often in the forefront of American Indian issues such as the protection of American Indian cemeteries and American Indian human remains, as well as the correction of American Indian textbooks. The Costos sought to develop publications that accurately reflected the historical role of Indians in American society.

Initially, the American Indian Historical Society published three journals: Wassaja, a national Indian newspaper; The Indian Historian, a respected academic journal; and the Weewish Tree, a national magazine for young Indian people. Rupert Costo coedited all three publications with his wife. In 1970, the society founded another publication arm, the Indian Historian Press, an American Indian–controlled publishing house that published fifty-two titles. Some of the well-known titles were Rupert Costo, ed. , Textbooks and the American Indian (1970) and Donald A. Grinde, Jr. (Yamasee), The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation (1977).

Through his editorial column in Wassaja, Costo advocated increased sovereignty for Native American nations in order to enhance land and water rights. He also worked tirelessly for the protection of American Indian civil, social, and religious rights.

At the end of his life, Costo endowed the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian History at the University of California, Riverside. Costo and his wife also established the Costo Library of the American Indian at the University of California, Riverside, one of the most comprehensive collections of American Indian books in the United States. In 1994, the University of California, Riverside, renamed its Student Services Building as Costo Hall in honor of the outstanding contributions of both Costos to the university.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Johansen, Bruce E. 2005. Native North America: A History. Westport, CT: Praeger; Mails, Thomas E. 1990. Fools Crow. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
 

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