Great Plains Studies, Center for
Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall 2001, pp. 261-73.
When Angie Debo was an old woman, she lived in her hometown of Marshall, Oklahoma, where she had warm and close ties with her neighbors. She also had a more geographically dispersed network: a list of several hundred people, scattered around the nation, whom she would mobilize to write senators and congressmen, or to the president, on behalf of particular campaigns for Indian rights. She sent the members of her network mimeographed letters and in urgent circumstances made phone calls to them. She got her network geared up to write in support of Alaskan Native land claims, an enlargement of the Havasupai Reservation, and groundwater rights for the Papago or Tohono O'odham. She attended closely to events in Marshall and to events all over North America.
After she retired, Angie Debo did some international traveling. She went to Europe, Africa, and Mexico. In Africa she became friends with a woman who took care of her when she got sick; they stayed in touch for the rest of her life, and Angie Debo helped pay for the education of the children of this African woman. Debo traveled to Russia, and there is something very remarkable about the way she had been interested in and preoccupied by Russia since she was a teenager in Oklahoma. During the Vietnam War, Debo found her thoughts repeatedly turning to this tragedy; it seemed to her an extension of what she called America's "real imperialism," which had begun with the conquest of Indian people and which relied on an unfortunate trust in military force. Until the United States reckoned with the early history of its imperialismusually called "westward expansion" or "the frontier"-it would occupy a morally compromised position, Debo thought, in trying to uplift the world and spread ideals of democracy and justice.1
Angie Debo's interests then were at once very local and very expansive, truly global. Her sense of the world's connectedness is one dimension of a host of qualities that make her an inspiration. She was entirely and committedly Oklahoman, and entirely and committedly human. Contemplating her example truly stirs the soul.
Angie Debo's capacity to inspire is also marked by a zone of mystery. Her courageous campaign to reveal the injustices done to Indian people, to recognize and explore their internal perspectives and experiences, and, generally, to write honestly and realistically about the process of displacement that put white Americans in possession of most of Oklahoma and the American West contains a puzzle: while Debo is best known for this critical and searching perspective on the conquest of North America, on other occasions she wrote in quite a different vein, returning to a much more familiar and conventional celebration of pioneer hardihood and enterprise. This is a paradox.2
In the twenty-first century, I am less able to cruise past this paradox. While a comparison to Jekyll and Hyde would certainly overstate the case, there do seem to be two public-record Angie Debos: Angie Debo #1, the justly famous, often-reprinted, often-cited author, who wrote critically and openly about the cruel, manipulative process of dispossession that made the modern state of Oklahoma possible, and Angie Debo #2, the much less famous, much less reprinted, much less cited author, who wrote cheerfully about pioneer courage and determination and who made and retained an easy peace with the frontier history associated with Frederick Jackson Turner. Angie Debo # 1 is the author of the famous books Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic (1934), And Still the Waters Run (1940), and A History of the Indians of the United States (1970). Angie Debo #2 is also the author of two books, her only novel-Prairie City (1944) and Oklahoma: Foot-loose and Fancy-free (1949).
Copyright 2001 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln