A Tribute to Peter Iverson

Jeff Nichols's picture

 (From the editor: We lost a colleague, mentor, and friend to many on February 14.  Don Fixico, Brian Collier, Andy Fisher, Jeff Shepherd and Rose Soza War Soldier were kind enough to share this tribute.) 



            The Diné (Navajo) people of the Southwest live by a philosophy, Hózhóogo, of “Walking in Beauty.”  A non-Navajo, Dr. Peter Iverson, Emeritus Regents’ Professor of History at Arizona State University, adopted this philosophy towards his life.  One of his former students, Dr. Andy Fisher, said Professor Iverson “always made a point of rising with (or before) the dawn in the Navajo way.”  As a preeminent American Indian history scholar, with a career that spanned decades, Iverson shaped the field and believed American Indians should be respectfully understood by everyone and recognized the importance of oral histories.  A testament to putting that belief into action, he worked with tribal nations and other scholars to forge a “New Indian History” for Indigenous voices to be heard, especially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Peter James Iverson was born in Whittier, California in 1944. On occasion, he wryly observed that sharing a birthplace with Richard Nixon was not a distinction he particularly relished. Peter and his two younger brothers grew up in Menlo Park, California near the Stanford University campus, where his father William Iverson was a professor. William’s father Oskar was a Norwegian immigrant who worked in a steel mill.  Peter often spoke about his family history of immigration and adaptation and noted “each day as I make my way to my home office, I pass images of immigrant family members who believed in the promise of America.”

Peter earned a B.A. from Carleton College and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  As an undergraduate at Carleton, Iverson initially declared Political Science as a major, then changed to History, focusing on European history mainly because the history department stressed it.  So, when entering Wisconsin to study American history, Iverson said, “I really had to scramble to catch up.”  After turning in one of his first research papers, he recalled the professor “marked up my initial work more than I thought possible and quickly disabused me of any notion that I knew how to write.”  Iverson recalled, “At the same time, I began to realize that my true interest was in American Indian history, and a readings course my second semester helped me define a new direction.”

His first position was teaching at the first tribal college, Diné College on the Navajo Nation from 1969 to 1971.  He said his time there “changed the course of my life” to learn and share the histories of the Navajos, although his interest in the Diné actually began during his childhood.  In elementary school, he gave a presentation on Navajo culture.  In the 1930s and early 1940s, Peter’s maternal grandfather served as a principal on the Navajo reservation at schools in Fort Wingate, Keams Canyon, and Toadlena.  In 1976 Peter Iverson accepted a visiting professor position at Arizona State University, then joined the history faculty at the University of Wyoming from 1981 to 1984.  During this time, mutual friends introduced Peter and Kaaren, and they married.  Peter said, “Each day I count my blessings and that long list begins with her presence in my life, combined with that of our children and our extended family.”

Peter Iverson joined the ASU faculty in 1984 and retired in 2011.  In 1991 he returned to Carleton University as Anderson Visiting Professor of American Studies.  Iverson was in the first cohort of Newberry Fellows for the D’Arcy McNickle Center for the American Indian at the Newbery Library in Chicago.  He later served on the center’s board of advisors, and was Acting McNickle Center Director for 1994-1995.  McNickle Center Director Rose Miron said, “Iverson helped to shape the philosophy of the center” in defining its direction for the future.  While Arizona State University grew to become the largest student populated research university in the country today, Peter Iverson helped to build an international reputation for ASU with expertise in the American West and American Indian history.

In an interview Iverson said, “Those of us who write about recent Indian history have the opportunity to speak to Native people who have lived through these times.” In his tireless efforts, he emerged as one of the nation’s leading scholars of recent American Indian History.  Peter Iverson told former student, Andy Fisher, now an Associate Professor at William & Mary that “I’ve learned just as much (or more) talking to people over the back of a pickup truck as I have in the archives.”  He instilled in all of his students, archives are important, but equally important is cultivating relationships and listening to stories.  Later, Peter would write a book in 2012 with Peterson Zah, former President of the Navajo Nation, We Will Secure Our Future:  Empowering the Navajo Nation.  Professor Iverson regularly attended the annual Diné Studies Conference, founded in 1986, often taking students which gave them a chance to see the relationship-building he talked about in seminars.

            Dr. Iverson put his family and students first, and was proud of every one of his 50 Ph.D.s and over 25 M.A. students that he advised.  When they had doubts, Peter Iverson said, “The four words I say most often to graduate students are:  ‘You can do it.’”  Brian Collier, a former student, now at the University of Notre Dame remember that Iverson quipped about “you know what we call people who have finished their dissertations?  Employable.”  Most of his former students teach at universities and community colleges spread across the country in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and in Finland.  Professor Iverson’s reputation as a scholar and devoted mentor rose to world recognition with two more graduate students, Paivi Hoikkala and Jaako Puisto, coming from Finland to work with him.  Dr. Markku Henriksson, retired Professor of History at the University of Helsinki took his first course on the American West in 1975 from Peter Iverson who was finishing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.  Remaining friends for more than 45 years, Dr. Henriksson influenced Finnish graduate students—Pekka Hämäläinen, Rani-Henrik Andersson, Janne Lahti and Timothy Braatz that formed unofficially the Helsinki School of the American West.  Henriksson said, “Peter also introduced me to many of his American students, some of who are now leading scholars in the field, and who have also found their way to the Maple Leaf & Eagle Conferences in Helsinki.”  Peter and his wife, Kaaren, attended many of the conferences, including him participating in a doctoral dissertation defense at the University of Helsinki.

            Among his Native students now employed in education are Dr. Laurie Arnold (Colville) University of Gonzaga; Dr. Ancita Benally (Navajo) an Education Program Manager for the Navajo Nation; Dr. Elise Boxer (Dakota) at University of South Dakota; Dr. Myla Vicenti Carpio (Jicarilla/Laguna/Isleta) of Arizona State University; Lisa Dyea (Laguna), a teacher for Grants Cibola Country Schools; and Dr. Rose Soza War Soldier (Mountain Maidu/Cahuilla/Luiseño) of California State University, Sacramento.

Of Iverson’s many doctoral students, Assistant Professor Rose Soza War Soldier, described Peter Iverson as a “consummate storyteller.”  Professor Iverson advocated for Indigenous people, who he had believed been largely ignored in historiography, and wanted them included equally in the story of the American West.  Professor Jeff Shepherd of the University of Texas, El Paso and a former student, recalled, “he taught me how to work with and for Native people, as a privileged white male scholar.  He taught me about respect, and about how to listen more and talk less.”  On the morning of his dissertation defense, Jeff Shepard received phone calls from Hualapais about where to park at ASU.  Two vans of tribal members had driven several hours to attend his defense.  Andy Fisher recalled “Peter also cultivated in his students a rare combination of confidence and humility.”  He never encouraged competition among his students, rather collaboration with one generation looking to and being supported by the next.

Peter Iverson consistently supported the arts and encouraged his students to read fiction, poetry, and include artwork and photographs in their own research.  He collaborated with Dr. Charles M. Roessel (Navajo) in Diné:  A History of the Navajos.  Roessel noted, “He made history come alive by sharing stories and details to provide the rich context of events from a personalized perspective.”

A prolific scholar, Iverson published more than a dozen books, three of them textbooks:  We Are Still Here: American Indians in the 20th Century, with Frederick E. Hoxie, Indians in American History:  An Introduction and another with Albert Hurtado, Major Problems in American Indian History.  One of his many books is a biography of Barry Goldwater.  The retired senator sometimes spoke to classes at ASU, and he spoke to one of Peter’s classes.  At ASU, he earned nearly every award the university presented and was named Regents’ Professor in 2000 by the Arizona Board of Regents.  Many people recall him saying, “I have the best job in the world.”  Dr. Iverson received major grants from the American Philosophical Society, the Guggenheim Foundation, and three from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  His accomplishments earned awards from the Ak-Chin Indian Community, Arizona Humanities Council, Carleton College, the Navajo Nation, Western Writers of America, the University of Wyoming, and the American Indian History Lifetime Achievement Award.  From 1990 to 1995, Professor Iverson was the Associate Editor of The Historian.  He served on the editorial boards of Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Journal of the West, and the Western Historical Quarterly, and was President of the Western History Association in 2004.  In 2003, Peter Iverson and ASU colleague Robert Trennert had the honor of their former students starting the Trennert-Iverson Scholarship for graduate students to attend the Western History Association annual conference.

            Peter Iverson passed away on Valentine’s Day after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease.  Peter Iverson is preceded by his parents, William James Iverson, Ph.D. and Adelaide Veronica Iverson, M.A.  He is survived by his wife, Kaaren Iverson, and four children:  Tim Warder; Scott Warder, Jens Iverson,  and Erika Iverson.  He has two brothers, Paul Iverson and David Iverson.

            Dr. Iverson had a love for classic movies and sports, especially basketball and baseball.  He greatly admired the work of many native artists. He enjoyed poetry, particularly the work of Diné poet, Luci Tapahonso.  He often spoke about the beauty of words.  When asked about advice for others, Peter Iverson said, “In this one life we have, we ought to live in a way that is in keeping with our best self.  In part that means trying to do the kind of work we want to do.”  He added, “My grandfather liked to quote John Ruskin, who stressed the importance of careful planning, clear thinking, and hard work.  One also needs, I believe, imagination, good luck, and people who believe in you.”  As many will remember Peter Iverson saying, “That’s a really good story and it had the added benefit of being true.”


Written by Don Fixico, and Peter’s former students, Brian Collier, Andy Fisher, Jeff Shepherd and Rose Soza War Soldier.


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