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.

None of this is news, nor was it in the 1920s when Angie Debo began her work: greed-driven dispossession of the native people had long been a hemispheric habit; it continues in Amazonia to this hour. But ruin is particular, tragedy local. Her study of the intricate but ultimately brutal legal process that so demoralized the Five Tribes just prior to statehood turned Angie Debo from a provincial school teacher into an important historian. She wrote crudely in the beginning. Her training had given her method, but not polish. Only in her finest book, The Road to Disappearance, does the prose take cadence, the sentences become graceful. Though one is aware of this awkwardness in the early books, one forgives it, very much as one forgives Dreiser, and for the same reasons. Even when the sentences aren’t smooth, they have sinew; the reader is pulled along by her strength of mind and power of sympathy.

Here, from The Road to Disappearance, are her descriptions of two ways of dealing with the vexing problem of capital murder. First, while the Creeks still had jurisdiction over their own criminals, there was the Creek way:

The death penalty was inflicted with…gravity. The condemned always met his fate calmly and never failed to show a strong interest in the coffin purchased for him at public expense. A typical execution took place in Coweta district in 1879 when one Satanoke was shot for the murder of Foxtail. About two hundred and fifty persons had assembled. A religious service was conducted by Rev. James McHenry. Then Coweta Micco, the judge of the district,…made a speech pointing out the seriousness of murder and advising all to take warning. The prisoner next addressed the crowd and all came up and bade him goodbye. His wife and baby were then brought up; he took the child in his arms, prayed for its welfare, kissed it, and returned it to its mother. He next asked to see the coffin and “said it was a good coffin.” The speechmaking and the informal reception following it lasted two hours, and the condemned man apparently took a solemn pleasure in the whole affair. He was then told to prepare himself for execution. He seated himself, removed his boots, and arranged his clothes. He asked the lighthorse captain what guns would be used, and a change was made from shotguns to rifles to suit his convenience…

When it was hanging day in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Isaac Parker, the famous hanging judge, held court, red justice had been replaced with the redneck variety:

…The drunkenness and lawlessness of that wicked border town of Fort Smith was extremely demoralizing to the Indians that were called there as witnesses. The hanging furnished an occasion for a Roman holiday; the railroads ran special excursion trains, and coarse, morbid crowds filled the jail yard, laughing, cursing, fighting for points of vantage, until it was hard to clear a path for the condemned to walk to the gallows.

In both the Creek and Choctaw books she dutifully cobbles together the tribal histories, but clearly it is the end of these stories, not their remote beginnings, that really interests her. Dispossession is a strong theme—it was also her home story. Fortunately, she had both the technical ability and the breadth of mind to do it justice.

By the time her trilogy was completed and published, Angie Debo had more or less taken her leave of academia. She administered the Federal Writers Project in Oklahoma, co-edited the Oklahoma state guide, was a librarian for awhile, taught occasionally, and did odd literary jobs. By 1943 she was calling herself a freelance writer; the thorough historian whose major texts rest firmly on thick pillars of footnotes began to attempt the sort of light work for which she was totally ill-suited. Three years after the Creek book she published a slight, quasi-fictional portrait of her home town (or its equivalent) called Prairie City. Either the book or the prairie schoolmarm so beguiled Alfred Knopf that he conjured up something called the A.A. Knopf Fellowship in History and awarded it to her. It may be that they both thought she was going to become the new Mari Sandoz, the appealing Nebraska writer who, after years of struggle and rejection, finally saw Old Jules (1935), her biography of her pioneer father, become an immediate best-seller.

Prairie City was an awkward hybrid, part history, part sociology, part fiction, part memoir; not surprisingly, only the history worked. After spending twenty years acquiring a flexible historical prose, she attempted to trade it in for something that might work in Redbook. This didn’t succeed but, unfortunately, she was soon to do worse. The woman who had written so scathingly of Oklahoma boosterism and the progressivist rhetoric that had been used to justify the big land-grab from the Indians wrote a complacently boosterish history of Tulsa, and one of the state of Oklahoma itself that was not much better.

It is a pity that none of the fine WPA photographers who worked in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years thought to take a picture of her; if any did I haven’t seen it. There are plenty of family photographs though, and these reveal her to have been a striking young woman. She was usually photographed with an enigmatic half-smile, a La Gioconda of the prairies; and the half-smile suggests something rather more forceful than mere high spirits. She was a notably attractive woman working in a place not exactly overripe with female beauty. One would suppose there were suitors, but, if so, none of them seems to have measured up, at least not long enough to secure a place in the record.

Among her odd jobs was a seminar in which she taught professionals who worked with Indian children, a task which led her to write her History of the Indians of the United States (1970), a wandering, sketchy book that does her no credit—the subject, in any case, had grown so vast that the archeological record alone would take a lifetime to master.

But, six years later, when she might have been expected to be an old prairie lady, fading out, she delivered the brilliant Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (1976), a book she had been working on since at least the Fifties, when Jason Betzinez and one or two others who had been with Geronimo before he came in were still alive to be interviewed. The book is as persuasive a portrait of a nineteenth-century Indian leader as we are likely to have. The critical and analytical intelligence which Angie Debo had first applied over fifty years earlier to sort out the contradictions and inconsistencies in the treaty record, she now focused on the contradictions and inconsistencies in the several first-hand accounts of where Geronimo went or didn’t, whom he killed or spared, and what he said or did when he was still a fighting Indian.

Her aim, she said, was to rescue Geronimo from being “just a Wild West character,” a task ultimately beyond the power of any historian. The great characters of Western history—Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Geronimo—have long since risen out of history into myth. A permanent frustration for Western historians, there almost from the beginning, is that, thanks largely to the movies, the lies about the West are more potent than the truths.

The trouble is that the great scenes are just so scriptable. Consider Geronimo’s famous surrender, September 4, 1886, in Skeleton Canyon, near the Mexico-Arizona border. General Crook had just quit in disgust, having let Geronimo slip away again. The vainglorious Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, the man who had been speedy enough, nearly a decade earlier, to head off the fleeing Nez Percé just south of Canada, thus receiving (with General Howard) Chief Joseph’s famous speech of surrender, is now just north of Mexico, with nearly a quarter of the United States Army somewhere in the Southwest, wondering if Geronimo will finally turn up and hoping he will be in a good mood if he does. Much as General Miles wants the glory of this last surrender, he is also afraid to believe in it; he knows full well that if Geronimo slips away again his portion will not be glory but disgrace—his and the Army’s as well. Finally, lured by the usual false promises, Geronimo allows the also very nervous Lieutenant Gatewood to ease him out of Mexico. When he at last surrenders to General Miles he has with him only Naiche (son of the Apache chief Cochise), sixteen warriors, fourteen women, and six children. He was not in a good mood, though, and made no immortal speech, though he did make a point he was to repeat over the years: that none of the generals or all of the armies had ever taken him in a fight. Or, as he put it, “never caught him shooting.”

This strange event, the few Apaches, the many soldiers, the nervous general, the rocky canyon, the desert sun, occurred only four years before Angie Debo’s birth; Geronimo lived in captivity for twenty-three years, dying at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, when she was a girl of nineteen. Chief Joseph was, by a little, the luckier man. He got to go back to his Idaho homeland once; Geronimo never saw the desert again.

Angie Debo takes us through Geronimo’s life with the same discriminating judgment about sources that had distinguished her earlier work on the Choctaws and the Creeks. She has become a better narrative historian than she was when she was working on the Five Tribes, but the real singularity of Geronimo is that she manages—while remaining faithful to the history—to tell much of this celebrated story from the Apache, rather than the white, point of view. Almost all the movies and most of the books about Geronimo are really about what the white soldiers who were chasing him felt and did. They were about whites trying to subdue an unsubdued and entirely unrepentant native leader. Angie Debo’s Geronimo is about the native leader himself, a man who eluded capture as long as he did because of his mastery of one of the most unforgiving landscapes in America; also, insofar as the historian can discern it, it is about what he felt as he saw his people’s way of life ending, and the exceptionally determined fight he put up to delay this ending as long as possible. Angie Debo was not Apache, but she had learned, in her long life, how to listen to Indians. She did her best to grasp the mindset of the desert Apache, and the result is a book that takes us as close as we will ever get to the period and the man.

With this her work was done, but, like Miss O’Keeffe, she didn’t die. The Old Woman of the Desert and the Old Woman of the Steppe lived on and on, into the near shadow of a century, the one world-famous, the other occasionally getting asked to lead a rodeo parade. In her seventies, fearing that what had happened in Oklahoma was about to happen again in Alaska, she roused herself to lobby for the Native Claims Settlement Act. In her mid-nineties, she finally became cute. She bought herself a black bonnet and took to dressing like Queen Victoria, at least on state occasions. She also came to look and behave like her last great subject, Geronimo. Once finally caged in age, they both rattled their bars with a vengeance; both became shrewd managers of their own legends.

For myself, this short appreciation is a way of paying a little interest on a long-accruing debt. In 1950, when I was fourteen, I found a copy of The Road to Disappearance in the parking lot of a livestock auction in Wichita Falls, Texas. Oklahoma was only eight miles away; the book had probably fallen out of a pickup, sustained a direct hit by a cattle truck, and been clipped a time or two by horse-trailers. Even so, it was a book, and any book was manna to me then. Unfortunately I was with my father, not a man to simply drive off with somebody else’s book, even if the true owner was by then hell-bound for Anadarko. He insisted that I take it to the auctioneer and tell him to put it in the lost-and-found. The auctioneer, so instructed, looked at me in astonishment: in the dog-eat-dog world of cattle auctions anything lost, if found, is likely to be immediately taken; and, besides, this was a book (an environment less conducive to reading than a livestock auction is hard to imagine). Still, he didn’t want to cross my father, so he put the book on a shelf between a plug of chewing tobacco and about a hundred pencil stubs—he was a man who went through a lot of pencils.

Two weeks later, the book was still there, so I claimed it, rubbed off the tread marks as best I could, and took it home. I soon realized that I wasn’t smart enough to read it—it was all about Creeks and treaties—but I put it on a shelf and considered it, dipping into it from time to time, reading a paragraph here and there, hoping I would someday be able to understand the whole, a process that took some forty years. My library at the time consisted of a few boys’ books left me by a thoughtful cousin as he went away to World War II. I didn’t know much, but I could tell that The Road to Disappearance was a different order of thing from Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot, my favorite book up to then. What intrigued me about my new, slightly tread-marked volume was that it had evidently been written by a woman who lived in Oklahoma. Texans, like the Congress itself, were slow to accord Oklahoma the majesty of statehood; I thought of it as a region set aside for the unruly. My one Oklahoma uncle, when informed some years later that I was thinking of getting a Ph.D., seemed mildly surprised that I would think to mention such a thing to him: wasn’t a Ph.D. just a posthole digger, an implement that could be obtained in any hardware store?

I didn’t get the Ph.D, but I kept The Road to Disappearance and, by considering it and occasionally reading a few of Angie Debo’s sinewy sentences, gradually arrived at a great notion, which was that it might be possible to organize one’s life around literature—not write it, I didn’t aspire to that, but just read it and, in some way, live with it.

The notion that one could organize one’s life around literature might seem simple, but if you grow up where there are no books and where no writer is ever mentioned, it isn’t. I could look off the porch of our ranch house, straight up the length of the Great Plains, all the way into Canada, but the only evidence I had that there were such things as writers in all that stretch of land was this book I had found in a parking lot, by a woman from Oklahoma. I didn’t know about Willa Cather or Mari Sandoz; Gass and Woiwode had yet to peep above the grass of the Dakotas. And yet, a woman from Oklahoma had somehow ordered her life around books and study. Having that fact to contemplate was, in context, an inestimable gift.

Angie Debo’s portrait now hangs in the Oklahoma state capitol. Among her companions there are Jim Thorpe, Will Rogers, and the great Sequoyah, whom she revered: all in all a fine honor for a prairie woman who had to struggle to get her schooling, but who, once she had the schooling, did something worthy of it.

This Issue

October 23, 1997