Born in Denver, Alfred Bush as a young man climbed the mountains in the Canadian Rockies and the Grand Tetons; graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah; and joined an archaeological dig in a Mayan site in Mexico. Then, luckily for Princeton, he was drawn East.
He arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1958 as one of the editors of “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.” At the completion of that project in 1962, he joined the staff of the Princeton University Library as curator of the Princeton Collections of Western Americana. Over the next 40 years as a curator, he significantly expanded the University’s collection, particularly in American Indian-related and photographic material. He published a number of works, partnered with faculty members in conferences and courses, and organized more than fifty exhibitions in the library and at other institutions. Following his retirement, the Princeton University Library Chronicle devoted a 2006 issue entirely to essays in honor of Alfred and his profound commitment and curatorial acumen. He was described with affection as “the western man who appeared in the eastern parlor and left a trail through the archives.”
Yet that was only one of the trails that Alfred walked. As advocate and advisor, he also accompanied several generations of Native American students as they made their way through Princeton. He became the leading light in the recruitment and retention of Native America students.
When cultural anthropologist, and Native American, Alfonso Ortiz joined Princeton’s faculty in the 1960s, Alfred had recognized a kindred spirit. He eagerly joined Ortiz’s quest to provide Native Americans from reservations the undergraduate experience at Princeton. In Alfred’s own words, “we found Princeton’s location perfect for such students: a bucolic campus within walking distance of woods filled with deer, yet only a train ride away from New York City and it special resources for the American Indian.”
Obstacles did not daunt Alfred. When he visited reservations and found a talented yet academically unprepared student, he would make a strategic phone call to arrange admission to private school before applying to Princeton. Even after attending a New England prep school, incoming students could find the cultural leap formidable, especially the gulf between English and their language. There Alfred would be, organizing tutors to help students prepare for the challenge of writing a senior thesis. Understanding that certain tribal ceremonies back at the reservations were important milestones for students, Alfred used a special travel account (funded by contributions from key supporters) to underwrite plane fares. Then Alfred would serve as chauffeur to and from the airport, no matter how early or late in the day.
Emery Real Bird ’17 has written: “Alfred made Princeton a more familiar place for me and countless other native students and for that I am grateful. He will always be remembered by myself and my cohort at Princeton’s Natives at Princeton as their mentor. A true sachem.”
Native American alumni from across the decades, many of whom have returned to their homes to become leaders in their tribes and in national Indian affairs, have also attested to Alfred’s insight and influence: “He mentored me, coached me academically and professionally, and he has never stopped all these years since….He understands and respects the environment in which we live, our direct ties to the earth, sky, sun, moon and the spirits, and also the importance of language, dance and song.”
With the Award for Service to Princeton, the Alumni Council is honored to recognize a true sachem, chief, who, by enriching the lives of Native Americans at Princeton, has not only enriched the life of the University but also enriched a nation’s understanding.