The Angie Debo Collection: Eulogy
Eulogy: A Perspective on the Life of Angie Debo
January 30, 1890 – February 21, 1988
By Gloria Valencia-Weber*
Edited from remarks presented at the memorial service on February 24, 1988 for Dr. Angie Debo
Thank you for being here today. I also want to thank Raymond and Mabel Bryson and the many friends of Angie Debo in the Marshall community. When they called me and asked me to do this, I must tell you it was an assignment that aroused fear and appreciation in rather overwhelming doses. To attempt to interpret the life of someone like Angie is an impossible feat, but with your forbearance and encouragement I will try.
I feel I have been among the most fortunate. I knew her for twenty years; in those years our relationship changed in various capacities. I knew Angie Debo as a friend, as a co-worker in civil liberties work, and as a mentor whose conduct, books, and generosity educated me about many things I needed to know. In the end, she was also the subject of historical research initiated by my colleague at Oklahoma State University, Glenna Matthews, of the History Department, and myself in about 1980. This project is culminating in the documentary to be shown this fall on the Public Broadcasting System. 1
Angie is the object of a national project to see that she is not forgotten and that the value of her life and work will be remembered. It is a project that involves people in New York and California and spots in between who have devoted much effort so that the job is done and, hopefully, at the standards Angie set for herself in the product that we finally present.
In all these relationships that I had with her, I constantly had new insights into her character; this deepened the regard, yet never altered the initial knowledge I had in 1968 that I was in the presence of one of those unique individuals of our time. Into her ninety-eight years, Angie compressed several lifetimes of accomplishment as a scholar, fighter for human rights, and a responsible community member who enriched the lives of many. She clearly left the world a better place than when she entered. She was the “first” in so many areas I will not attempt to list the many firsts among her accomplishments.
I think we should start with her statement of what she said her life was about. In 1976 in an essay called “To Establish Justice,” she revealed her commitment to live a personal and professional life with ethical accountability, where fairness was central, and one has an obligation to invoke the power of remedy. In her words:
When I start on a research project I have no idea how it will turn out. I simply want to dig out the truth and record it … Once I felt that when this truth was uncovered and made known, my job was done. Later I came to see that after my findings were published I had the same obligation to correct abuses as any other citizen. 2
From my experience of twenty years, her books and letters, and the oral history interviews with Angie and those she knew, I will try to explore how Angie fulfilled her goal of “intelligent citizenship.” The history and meaning of her experiences reveal the nature of our loss now that she is physically gone, the magnitude of our gain because we were fortunate to have her among us, and the potential for continuing to enrich our lives if we utilize her wisdom. Angie, by no means, was just a lovable sweet old lady from Marshall. She would be very angry with us, as loving and loved as she was, if we only said words about her that presented her in that light. Angie was a formidable person, and I would like to explore her personhood in several ways.
First, Angie was a deeply committed, community-centered person. Marshall, the place where her family settled, was the source of the values for her personal and professional life. She continuously revealed how the people and experiences she had here always made her feel loved and valued. And, it was also clear that Marshall valued her and knew it had a special person in its midst. Angie knew friendship in its deepest sense in what she gave and what she received. Those of us who were lucky to see her in everyday life knew that she had an encyclopedic mind. The same mind that she focused on her scholarly work, she used to be constantly aware of our concerns. She asked about your family and knew about your everyday concerns, about illness and achievements, and continuously expressed her interest. Even in her last month she never forgot anything about my family. I know this is true for those who knew her; she regularly asked about the well-being of our lives and our friends.
The value of this friendship, particularly in the community context, was especially important because of Angie’s choice of career. She decided at about the age of twelve or thirteen that she was going to teach and to write. She told us that she knew at that time the choice meant the sacrifice of a family and biological children because, in her time, a woman could not have these and achieve and maintain a deeply committed profession. We know she had suitors. From that beautiful picture of her as a sixteen-year-old, who had passed her teacher’s exam and was teaching, and what Raymond Bryson has told me, she clearly was an attractive person. Who of us, looking at her in those pictures would doubt it. But, she had made her choice, so now her family would become the Marshall community.
Angie served Marshall as a teacher at various times, overcoming or overwhelming the intricacies of who gets certified to teach. She was a minister during World War II for the Methodist Church in which she said she “married and buried” those she dearly loved. In return, Marshall supported her in every way that we know deeply caring people care for each other. It was not a matter of blood degree.
We know that she continuously returned to Marshall to find refuge and to tap the resources here – her family, her friends, the community members – who could sustain her as she wrote. She once told us:
I would go where I needed to go and when it came to the writing, I did my writing in Marshall. My parents lived right here in this house.… (my bedroom) was where I stayed while I was doing the writing. And my mother … I got her pretty well trained not to talk to me. She used to say “Angie and I are not talking.” 3
This was important training because Angie lived with her widowed mother until her mother died in 1954. Angie retired from her librarian’s job at Oklahoma State in 1955. How they lived and how Angie wrote in that environment was very important.
To the end of her days, Angie valued this life-long love affair with Marshall and its people, certainly for the personal pleasure and richness it added to her life. Her life choices challenged the oft-advocated model for the excluded in our society – that they must abandon traditional ties, including family – if they expect to succeed in an individualistic society. But, Angie knew that people cut off from their cultural and social connections were at their peril to discover substitutes for the important supportive parts of community life, that there are some things which do not need to be sacrificed in order to achieve equality and success. For women, members of ethnic minorities, and others traditionally excluded from many arenas of work and life in our society, this in an important lesson to hear.
I would now like to address Angie as a model in several critical areas in which she integrated her experiences as a pioneer. She expanded her intellectual and creative reach beyond Marshall, beyond Oklahoma, in arenas that some of us find hard to imagine for ourselves, but one sees the mark of her work there.
First, as an Oklahoma historian, Angie did not engage in boosterism as a form of history. She was keen-eyed observer of everything. If you look at the first chapter, for instance, of Oklahoma Foot-loose and Fancy-free, 4 it is a chapter on the geology, wildlife, flowers, everything about Oklahoma, because she felt people were influenced by their environment. The environment was part of the value of their life. For instance, when Angie was a minister for the Methodist Church, she sweetened the formality to integrate the pioneering experience here in Marshall. Angie would sometimes bury people saying, “With this loved soil of Oklahoma which you tilled for so many years, I bury you.”
Angie saw the Oklahoma experience as a time-compression of all that had happened in the colonial Jamestown settlement. It was as if in the fast-forward mode of a video machine, where everything is compressed into rapidly occuring events, in which human perseverance – just nitty gritty work – overcame all forms of adversity. She told the good with the bad. Maybe that is why in some ways she was under appreciated. Only last fall was the first of her books placed on the approved textbook list for history in Oklahoma. We will do more to remedy that.
In Prairie City , 5 a loving tribute to Marshall, Hennessey, and people of this area, she presents us with a community bound by shared experience. Angie tells us about the starving times in which only through laughter and ingenuity did people find sustenance and solace when they were driven to all kinds of solutions. For instance, she tells us about the dog in the molasses (in the oral tape she tells us it happened near Hennessey) and she loved it. 6 Basically, there were hard years, starving years in which the crops did not yield, and it was very important for people to put away food for the hard times. In this incident, a group of people were putting away barrels of molasses. Lo and behold, an opportunistic dog leaped into one barrel and instantly leaped out. Here they were faced with this dilemma of food badly needed, but repulsed by the thought of hairy dog-flavored molasses. Angie explained to us how “pioneer logic” worked. One of the more clever peple there said, “Wait a minute, let’s not forget it was molasses the dog jumped into. And the only molasses that touched the dog stuck to it and went with it when it leaped out of the barrel.” So now they were comforted about the fear of wasting precious food and certainly placated about eating hairy molasses.
Angie described a people, as she said it, happy as june bugs because they were getting land and a new start. In Oklahoma’s effort, in its new-fangled constitution, to achieve the most democratic government possible, there were sometimes laughable events. Edna Ferber, for instance, once described Oklahoma as the place where governors were impeached “with musical comedy swiftness and regularity.” 7 Angie allowed that, perhaps, we deserved that comment in some degree. In Oklahoma Foot-loose and Fancy-free, she tells us about the period in which governors were being impeached.
The legislature impeached Governor Johnston on eleven charges, but convicted him of only one – “general incompetence.” … Oklahomans have always been ashamed of Johnston’s removal. They felt that he was probably as “competent” when impeached as he had been when they elected him. Indeed, if removals are to be made on that score, it might be cheaper to require all candidates for office to qualify for an aptitude test. 8
And since there are some public officials present today, we might ask you to keep this comment in mind.
She has reminded us of the not-so-funny past, such as the death settlements in 1915 in Ardmore after a petroleum disaster in which the corporations paid $7,500 for each White victim and $2,500 each for “Negroes.” 9 Angie deeply valued the pioneer experience, but she allowed no one, least of all herself, to indulge in romantic escapism from the facts. For that, we dearly treasure her..
We need to also honor her as a pioneer scholar in the history of American Indians. Angie is unsurpassed for factual honesty, analysis, interpretation, and for a sensitivity to the motives of everyone involved in that fateful contact when the indigenous peoples of America met the Euro-Americans. It is only by chance, as she describes it, that she entered in to that field. When she started to do the work on And Still the Waters Run, looking at Eastern Oklahoma and Oklahoma in general, “dominated by a criminal conspiracy to cheat the these Indians out of their land,” she had not known what she was entering.
But when I got into it and found out what had happened, it was not possible for me to drop it. I felt as though that would be a dishonest thing to do. I think I was not brave enough to have chosen the subject if I had known what it would let me in for. But after I did get into it and realized what was happening, I felt an obligation to go on with it. 10
She talks about this being one of the must unhappy experiences of her life, when she was doing the research, because she said:
It seemed as though everything I touched was slimy … I would walk through a kind of dark corridor, because I was working in basements mainly (of courthouses), on material that had never been used before. (And) I just felt afraid. I’d pick up a newspaper and here would be on the front page names of the people who had attained their power and prominence by robbing the Indians and this was criminal, too. And when I would look at the society page, here would be their wives and the other women in their family, and it just seemed as though it was a terrible experience. 11
Angie had also witnessed the political destruction of one of her heroines, Kate Bernard, a progressive leader in early statehood days who tried to protect the rights of Indian children. We are not without some degree of appreciation for the fear Angie expressed.
Yet, when And Still the Waters Run was published by the Princeton University Press, there were no repercussions, no libel suits. Glenna and I once asked her why, because the names of the significant grafters were in the text and the small timers were certainly discoverable through the footnotes. Angie’s answer was:
I still don’t know whether grafters don’t read, or whether they were afraid I’d tell the whole story, and tell a lot more than I had space to tell in my book. 12
She went on with her history writing, regardless of risk.
We must honor her for this risk-taking and productivity and be thankful. In her honor the History Department of Oklahoma State University has begun the work necessary to establish a fully endowed chair of American History to be named after Dr. Angie Debo. This is important, but there are many ways in which we can keep her vision going. Among other things she told us about Oklahomans is that they write a lot, they write about everything, but they lack the zeal to read. In today’s program that you were given, you will notice there is a list of her books. Being a schoolteacher in my past life, and one of Angie’s professional descendants, I say take the list as your homework assignment.
Another area in which we need to honor Angie is as a human rights advocate. She was a fighter. Reyna Green, an American Indian scholar, has talked about the need of the American Indian community to have what she calls “scholar-warriors,” people who can use their immense intelligence to secure justice. That really is the intelligent citizenship that Angie talked about; others call it the gospel of good works. She pursued it in several ways.
In 1969 at the age of seventy-nine, Angie began a national network, of 250 groups and individuals who worked deliberatively to secure Congressional acts to protect American Indian rights. Her annual Christmas newsletter grew into a regular newsletter devoted to specific projects. This was all at her expense. Angie very precisely told you who to call, when to call, and what little “personal” buttons to push on particular legislators. 13
One of the results of the network was the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act through which the Alaska Natives obtained a fee simple title, that is, actual title to what had previously been unsettled aboriginal rights. The Act was not a perfect answer, but it was a battle in which Angie always respected the right of the Alaska Natives to choose for themselves as they entered the minefields of Congressional lobbying and bargaining.
Angie’s sophistication as she lobbied in Washington, D.C. for the Alaska Natives is rather overwhelming; her mark in the battle is clear. One of the artifacts of that legislative history which I studied a couple of years ago is this pamphlet put out by the coalition of Alaska Natives. The title, I think, is Angie’s. It’s called, “Native Alaska: Deadline for Justice.” In it she reminds us that this is the last chance of the United States to do justice and that we must not bypass this opportunity.
Among other network victories was the return of land to the Havasupais in Grand Canyon area. Angie constantly advised Indian groups and tribes at their request. We saw this morning in the special prayer (by the Creek-Muskogee Nation) the high regard in which she was held by so many Indian peoples.
The power of remedy that she believed in continues in her scholarly works in ways Angie could not foresee. It was one of my pleasures to discover in law school how far her reach had extended. There is a particularly significant Indian law case, called Harjo v. Kleppe 14 in which the rights of the Creek nation, the people who were addressing you this morning, were at stake. In determining the facts, critical because they concern what happened in the past between the Creeks and the Federal government, the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. relied upon Angie’s history. This is unique; this is not the “duelling expert witnesses” we find in other court trials. The court relied greatly, as shown in the decision favoring the Creeks:
The materials upon which the Court has chiefly relied with respect to the history of the periods involved in this case include the two books … by Angie Debo, And Still the Waters Run and The Road to Disappearance, which appear to be the pre-eminent works in the field and which were used by the Court pursuant to the agreement of the parties. 15
To have legal parties agree to anything, other than the timetable for lunch, is remarkable. So this was an immense achievement for Angie’s work to be so regarded. The work that first began inHarjo continues in a legacy of legal decisions, that is, the progeny cases relying on Harjo There are Supreme Court cases today that rely on the historical facts that Angie has presented in her books and which now the courts accept as the truth of matters at issue. As a result of this, her legacy is entering into the body of international law which treats and protects the rights of indigenous people throughout the world.
I need to also address Angie’s role as an advocate for equality. She truly was committed to equality for all, but knew most deeply the inequality frequently suffered by women. The account in the program you have before you today is her version of events and it is quite true. We also found in the course of our historical research how deeply her gender, being female at the wrong time in the wrong historical place, had excluded her from university teaching jobs she desired. In spite of her persistent achievements, Angie could not overcome this discrimination against women. Her university jobs were never in tenure track positions, teaching as a history department faculty member, but in sporadic appointments from which she, at times desperately, pieced together existence and economic survival. The Rise & Fall of the Choctaw Republic was published in 1934, and she had no stable employment again until 1947 when she began working for the Oklahoma State University library. So now we understand fully the value of Marshall as a place for supporting her.
We know from her letters and other documents that Angie was fired from her job in Texas by her alleged superior, a man of small mind and spirit, who was constantly threatened by the presence of this intelligent woman. And then she really aggravated him: she won the Dunning prize of the American Historical Association in 1934 for The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic. She was recognized as a leading scholar of the American Indian. In these materials are what I call the songs of sorrow and joy. It is particularly heartbreaking to read the letters in which repeatedly she is seeking jobs, asking her mentor who she greatly admired, Edward Everett Dale who headed the University of Oklahoma History Department, to help her.16 While Dale referred to her as “my most outstanding Doctor,” 17 he did not help her. When Dale was department head, he hired men nowhere as gifted as she was.
But Angie, in the style of prairie pioneers, found ways to survive. She ruthlessly resisted self-pity and would look inwardly only to garner her resources and personal strength to continue writing. Denied the collegial support, the graduate students to train, and the opportunities for development that a university provides, she did it her way. Angie developed her own network and set of friends among librarians, historians, and students of history. While Angie could talk to anyone, and everyone did talk to Angie, she was particularly generous with people interested in history. She virtually converted me to become an amateur historian. Her unbounded generosity nurtured all those in contact with her.
In the process this past year of getting her nominated for the American Historical Association Lifetime AchievementAward, some songs of joy emerged among the many letters. And they served as the basis of the professional vindication attained in this award recently presented to her by Governor Henry Bellmon. I read to you from just one of those letters of joy. This is a letter written by Michael Green who is an Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth and the Chair of the Native American Studies:
We met at a conference, spoke only briefly, but she expressed interest in my work and agreed to read my manuscript. I sent it to her three years later. I had received my degree … and was thinking about revisions necessary to make my dissertation publishable. She told me later that when she received my manuscript, she had forgotten our earlier conversation, could not remember me or what I looked like, and thought she was reading something that had dropped from the sky. About a month after she received the manuscript, she sent me a fifteen page letter of critical comments, interpretive advice, and recommendations on how to approach a publisher. She did that for someone she did not know and at a time when she was deeply preoccupied with Geronimo. 18
There are numerous scholars who can tell of similar acts of generosity on Angie’s part.
We honor her today as a guardian of civil liberties. It was in that work that I knew Angie in the late 1960s and 1970s. It is no wonder that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma named its highest service award after her. She had an unrelenting commitment that constitutional rights and liberties should be protected in this country. Angie used her immense knowledge and sense of humor to keep the ACLU of Oklahoma Board of Directors on the right track. When we would get involved in muddled discussions as to whether a given issue should be supported and if it was too controversial for certain people, Angie quickly corrected us. She would say that any desire on the part of the American Civil Liberties Union to be universally loved in Oklahoma is neither laudable nor possible, so “let’s get on with the work.”
She was particularly involved in the Viet Nam War era in debates or discussions on the First Amendment and whether people opposed to that war should be allowed to say what they believed. On numerous occasions, she represented the ACLU in universities or other settings to defend the right to First Amendment protection for all regardless of their message. It was really a pleasure to send her. She violated many of the expectations of her adversaries. I think perhaps they expected a scruffy, long-haired, bearded-hippie type, and in walked this wonderful woman with a grandmotherly appearance, incredible knowledge, superb credentials, and a sense of humor. Her adversaries simply did not know how to deal with such a knowledgeable and dignified hell-raiser. Some of her adversaries were what we would call “bumper-sticker patriots,” without the knowledge or appreciation of what a unique set of rights Americans have under the Constitution of this country. Occasionally Angie would give me her account of what occurred. She was very kind and generous to her adversaries. But, she also let me know, that at times, as equipped as she was, she could not have a battle of wits with unarmed people.
She enriched us and taught us much. She never failed to use her intelligence and humor when it was necessary. In that period, I remember that Raymond Bryson and other friends had been worried for some time about Angie’s constant get-up-and-go when she drove herself all over Oklahoma in a twenty-year old car. We had visions of her being stranded somewhere, and she was in her eighties already. And, she would not buy a new car. Even though Angie told me that her ancestors were French, I think there were some frugal Scots there. She insisted that “ the car runs, even if it is some twenty years old”. Eventually, we got her to stop driving that car. When she agreed to stop, she was to be given a ride to the ACLU Board meetings. However, she insisted on being picked up only by the safest driver. When I asked her about this particular condition, she replied, “I have not finished Geronimo yet.” At this time, she was about eighty-two years old. And she said, “I’m not doing anything dangerous until I finish that book.” So to keep her as a Director on the Board, we complied. Those who were selected as the safest drivers had a wonderful experience. On those drives and conversations, she freely talked about everything from garden crops to the current crop of politicians.
Angie said she did not want a long funeral, and she would tell us that we have already fussed too much about her. That was like her; she always said there was all this fuss when she really had not done all that much. So I have to try to close this somewhat impossible task: to accurately describe the beloved woman we knew as a friend, scholar, and fighter for human rights. I hope I have not overlooked her all too human side. Angie was a strong, dominating person, extremely independent who tried to live as independently as possible until the very end.
As she got on, sometimes we had long discussions. For instance, it was clear that a rest home was not the place for her. I have a friend who is a nurse and specializes in evaluating what is needed in the way of services and home arrangements so the elderly can stay in their homes. This friend did an evaluation for Angie. Thereafter ensued what I call the rugs-and-telephone war. She had these throw rugs in the house, a house built by her brother. The house was filled with all the things that Angie loved by, the pictures that she and her brother took, for instance. And these rugs were there and we were concerned. Because of her age, she was having to use a walker more and more, and we were concerned about her tripping. At the same time, she insisted on having only one telephone, stuck in the recesses of her bedroom. We knew she was doing these octogenarian sprints to answer it. She would not remove the throw rugs and she told me very clearly, “I’m used to them being there. I like how they look there, and I’ll be careful, and I won’t fall.” Eventually we talked her into another telephone, which became a characteristic of Angie’s life. It was there on the sofa and she called everybody in the world. I think she must have developed the fastest fingers in the West; no one was beyond her reach. Using that phone, she sat on her sofa and continued to edit and prepare the corrections for the next editions of her books.
Angie pursued life so fully that she fooled me, for a while, into thinking that she would live forever. And maybe you, too, were fooled. But today we honor her as a person unafraid to choose the path of personal and professional conduct that demanded integrity and discipline. Hers was a generosity without demands. She injected into life a wit and humor that was a constant delight and surprise. She was deeply moved when she recently received the award from the American Historical Association that Governor Henry Bellmon presented to her. And as I talked to her in the weeks while we arranged this, she told me that she would put on hold all of her social engagements, and that she would have to get her hair fixed as she had a “date” with the Governor.
Although a person gifted at an extraordinary level, Angie retained an appreciation of her own fallibility and was empathic about the failures of others, even when they acted unfairly to her and to people who mattered to her. Angie’s belief in the power of remedy made her a force to be reckoned with; her commitment to reveal the truth of human experience as a first step of the corrective and healing process was profound. She comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable and readily joined efforts to accomplish these ends. So I leave you with her words from “To Establish Justice,” in which she prods us to join those who would right age-old wrongs and prevent new-age atrocities against the human spirit. She said: if we win, in what seems like an almost hopeless cause, we will have the consciousness that wrongs can be righted, that justice can overcome entrenched power, and that our lives and efforts can count. 19 I hope that this perspective has captured some of Angie Debo, because only a marathon speech could accurately capture the scope of her life.
Thank you very much.
*Gloria Valencia-Weber and Glenna Matthews, both former faculty members of Oklahoma State University (OSU), initiated the oral history project on Dr. Angie Debo’s life and scholarship. That effort was supported by the OSU College of Arts and Sciences and the Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities and is culminating in a documentary to be broadcast in Fall 1988 over the Public Broadcasting System. Valencia-Weber graduated from Harvard Law School in June 1986; served as a law clerk for the Hon. Lee R. West, United States District Court for Western Oklahoma; and then as a law clerk for the Hon. William J. Holloway, Jr., Chief Judge of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. [September 2004: She is now the Henry Weihofen Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law.]
1 Angie Debo’s life and works will be the subject of a documentary “Indians, Outlaws and Angie Debo,” on the Public Broadcasting System in a national history series, The American Experience, scheduled for Fall 1988. Derived from the efforts begun by Oklahoma State University, College of Arts and Sciences, and the Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities, the film production is by the Institute for Research in History, New York City and Station WGBH-Boston.
3 Interview, November 20, 1981; oral recordings of interviews cited are in archives of the Edmon Low Library, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. These interviews, part of a series, were conducted by Glenna Matthews and Gloria Valencia-Weber, former faculty members of Oklahoma State University. Aletha Rodgers was the sound technician for these recordings. The recordings were used to produce a public radio program on Angie Debo.
16 Edward Everett Dale Collection, Manuscripts Division, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma, Box 17, Folder 13, telegram dated January 4, 1934 and Box 17, Folder 14, letter dated June 19, 1937.