Broken Promises

The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic

by Angie Debo
University of Oklahoma Press, 314 pp., $15.95 (paper)

And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes

by Angie Debo
Princeton University Press, 417 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians

by Angie Debo
University of Oklahoma Press, 399 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place

by Angie Debo
University of Oklahoma Press, 500 pp., $19.95 (paper)

A History of the Indians of the United States

by Angie Debo
University of Oklahoma Press, 450 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Historians who devote their careers to the study of institutions—even Maitland or Namier—never enjoy the broad popularity of the chroniclers of conquest and empire (Prescott, Parkman, Macaulay, Churchill). Most people would rather read about the Goths at the gates of Rome, or Napoleon watching Moscow burn, or Kitchener at Khartoum, or Custer at the Little Bighorn, than follow Maitland as he patiently separates common law from canon law, or absorb Namier’s stately reconstruction of the parliament of George III. The great historians of institutions don’t scorn popularity, but the law, or parliament, come to exert such a fascination for them that they don’t have time to worry about much except their charters, their pedigrees, and their lists.

So it was with the too-little-known American historian Angie Debo (1890-1988), who early made it her task to elucidate what might be called the Second Dispossession of the Five Civilized Tribes once they had been brought to the eastern part of what is now Oklahoma and settled on land that was to be theirs inalienably. This dispossession was legislative and bureaucratic rather than military, but it was no less relentless for that; and Angie Debo, in three somber and scrupulous histories published in the Thirties and early Forties, extracts the story detail by detail from congressional records, legislative acts and the amendments to legislative acts, treaties and the alteration and, finally, abrogation of treaties, from records of land tenure, allotment rolls, tribal budgets, transcripts of hearings, minutes of tribal councils, censuses, surveys, agricultural reports, tax rolls, small town and tribal newspapers, and the mass of inadvertently damning statistics compiled, as the dispossession was taking place, by the Department of the Interior.

In the preface to And Still the Wa-ters Run (1940), a book whose conclusions—not to mention its naming of names—proved too volatile for it to be published in Oklahoma, Angie Debo has this to say about what was to be her chosen subject:

Every schoolboy knows that from the settlement of Jamestown to the 1870s Indian warfare was a perpetual accompaniment to American pioneering, but the second stage of dispossession of the Indians is not so generally and romantically known. The age of military conquest was succeeded by the age of economic absorption, when the long rifle of the frontiersman was replaced by the legislative enactment and court decrees of the legal exploiter, and the lease, mortgage and deed of the land shark.

Where the Five Tribes were concerned her job, as she came to see it, was to write the history of the chiselling era; the whole of her early and most vigorous work might be taken as a gloss on the weary remark made by the Oglala chief Red Cloud in his old age:

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.

Even her last book, the excellent biography of Geronimo published when she was eighty-six, was at…

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