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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 bottom another history of dispossession, only this time she did have, at the center of her story, a character the public at large might want to read about.

The three books of Debo’s first period, in which she tells, precisely, how the Five Tribes lost much of their new western lands, are The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic (1934), And Still the Waters Run (1940), and The Road to Disappearance (1941). The title of the first book describes it accurately; And Still the Waters Run analyzes the development and enactment (or one could say infliction) of the land allotment policy (the real heartbreaker for the Indians); and The Road to Disappearance is a history of the Creek Confederacy until its dissolution in 1907, when Oklahoma became a state.

Read together, as a trilogy, these books represent a remarkable intellectual surge for a young woman who had been left to cool her heels, educationally, for several years, because Marshall, Oklahoma, the town she called home for eighty-nine of her eventual ninety-eight years, had no high school for her to go to. She was certified to teach in rural schools when she was sixteen but did not finish high school until she was twenty-three. When she finally got to the University of Oklahoma and chose history as her subject, she was lucky to find a mentor, Edward Everett Dale, who pointed her toward the rich and then virtually unexplored state archives, little suspecting how deeply, persistently, and provocatively she would eventually delve.

Angie Debo seems to have been one of those rare souls whose fascination from the first is with bureaucratic practice and governmental policy. At the University of Chicago (M.A., 1924) she did a thesis on American isolationist policy, got it published, and seemed pointed toward the study of international affairs, but the job market for a young woman in that line of work proved nil. In fact, the only job she could get that allowed her to teach history at all was at tiny West Texas State Teacher’s College in Canyon, a fate that led her to complain for the next sixty years about the backwardness of history departments. (She must have envied her one female predecessor in the field of Five Tribes studies, Annie Heloise Abel, born in Sussex and brought to Kansas early, who promptly doubled back to Yale, where she took a doctorate in 1905, while Angie Debo was still hoping for a high school.)

When Angie Debo was teaching in Canyon, there had recently been another gifted prairie schoolmarm in the neighborhood, Georgia O’Keeffe, who taught school in Amarillo in 1912-1913; but Miss O’Keeffe went on to New York, Stieglitz, and glory, whereas Miss Debo merely trudged up to Washington and parked herself in the basement of the old Department of the Interior, where the records of the Dawes Commission were then kept.

This commission, which sat for twelve years (1893-1905), had the unenviable responsibility of making the Five Tribes—which had held their land communally, by treaty and patent—accept individual allotments of land and, also, the dissolution of their tribal governments, after which they would all be American citizens, resident in the new state of Oklahoma. The Five Tribes did not want, nor did they passively accept, the extinction of their titles and their sovereignty, but, as always, they were outnumbered, outlobbied, and outlawyered.

Angie Debo was, at first, anything but a breastbeater for Native American rights. Although she grew up on the edge of the Creek country, and was to write her finest book about the Creek people, I doubt that she had much to do with Indians or Indian affairs until she began her work on the Dawes Commission. She came from sodbuster stock, a breed, in my experience, that produces precious few sentimentalists. In the Choctaw book particularly, she is sometimes casually condescending to the Indians in the manner of her day (her contempo-rary, Samuel Eliot Morison, takes the same tone in his school history of the United States). But, as she plowed through the records in Washington and probed in rural courthouses back home, her sympathies shifted and her innate tough-mindedness began to be directed at the misdeeds of her own people (that is, white Oklahomans). She immediately perceived a major irony: American citizenship, dream and hope of millions of emigrants, was, for the real natives who were being forced to accept it, a tool of destruction. Citizenship was the legal crowbar which would be used to pry them off their land, since, once they were citizens, their land could be bought and sold like that of any other citizens.

Singularly, for a woman of her time and place, she recognized that the policy of allotments in which land that had once been tribal was surveyed and broken into section and quarter-section lots was, from the point of view of the Five Tribes, a tragedy that was at bottom religious in nature. Whatever their faults, the Indians (in the main) still held to a sacramental view of the earth as being holy and indivisible. The whites, whatever their virtues, didn’t see it that way. For them, land was as saleable as shoes, only it was worth more.

What the records of the Dawes Commission revealed to Angie Debo was, in the end, human nature—particularly human nature as it operated in eastern Oklahoma throughout the approach to statehood. What offended her most deeply at first were the broken promises: a sodbuster’s word, after all, was his bond, and, to the plains pioneer, a promise made was a promise kept. Though her own parents had moved from Kansas to Oklahoma in search of more and better land, she had not expected to encounter such intense, obliterating land-greed as the records revealed. There was even, for a time, a Dead Souls-ish practice by which land speculators would buy up the allotments of Indians who had died but not yet been removed from the tribal rolls.

As she cut ever deeper into the story her respect for the bureaucrats diminished and her respect for the Indians grew, especially for leaders such as the wise Creek chieftain Pleasant Porter, who continued to act for his people with dignity during the whole confusing and humiliating business of apportionment. Many Indians, given allotments, never showed up to claim them. Some absentees acted out of principle, others out of resignation and hopelessness. One who dissented on principle was the Creek statesman Chitto Harjo, who once, in 1906, startled a senatorial committee by announcing bluntly: “Now I am going to tell you what has happened since 1492.” The senators were aghast: Did the man suppose they had all day? Persuaded to condense his understanding of the treaty situation, Chitto Harjo—as quoted by Angie Debo—did so eloquently. Speaking of the whites that he had been taught to revere, he said:

He told me that as long as the sun shines and the sky is up yonder these agreements will be kept…. He said as long as the sun rises it shall last; as long as the waters run it shall last; as long as the grass grows it shall last…. He said, “Just as long as you see the light here, just as long as you see this light glimmering over us, shall these agreements be kept, and not until all these things cease and pass away shall our agreement pass away”; that is what he said, and we believed it. We have kept every turn of that agreement. The grass is growing, the waters run, the sun shines, the light is with us, and the agreement is with us yet….

If our treaty writers had a collective failing it was a tendency to be swept by their own eloquence into purple depths of quasi-biblical prose. Offers of eternal possession were frequently, even casually, made, perhaps most embarrassingly with the Sioux, who were granted the Black Hills forever only to have them yanked back almost immediately when gold was discovered in them.

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