Skip to Main Content

The Angie Debo Collection: National Literary Landmark Dedication

Angie Debo: National Literary Landmark Dedication

October 1, 2004, Oklahoma State University

Angie Debo, History Scholar: Still Growing Beyond Her Roots in Oklahoma

Gloria Valencia-Weber 1

  1. Introduction
  2. History of the American Indian
  3. Angie Debo in the Law World
  4. Angie Debo’s Legacy of Hope
  5. Footnotes


Thank you, Jennifer Paustenbaugh and everyone at Oklahoma State University involved in making this event possible. I must acknowledge the presence of persons noteworthy in the efforts to recognize and make known to the world the accomplishments of Angie Debo. Present today is Barbara Abrash, producer of the documentary we just viewed, “Indians, Outlaws, and Angie Debo,” and Senator Penny Williams, an initiator and supporter of numerous projects to honor Debo. Glenna Matthews, my partner in the oral and video documentation of Debo’s life and accomplishments is unable to be here today. Also, I greatly appreciate the presence of the family of Raymond Bryson, who was Angie Debo’s lifelong friend and enabler.

It is a daunting task to attempt to properly honor Angie Debo. The twenty some years in which I knew her, as a mentor, an intellectual and ethical guide, and a friend only deepens the complexity of the task. I will address her as “Angie” as that is the comfortable way in which our relationship developed, but that in no way implies disrespect for her many achievements. Today, I will focus on three areas in which the life and work of Angie Debo continue to have impact. Certainly, there are other ways to describe where Angie has left her mark in our world. However, I focus first on her work as a historian who has left a clear impact in the discipline of history; second, in the challenging area of Indian law; and third, on the legacy of hope that she has left in a world all too often motivated by fear and hate.

History of the American Indian

Angie’s continuing impact as a historian is simply stunning and undeniable. For instance, a general search by the University of New Mexico School of Law librarians in the social sciences produced an amazing array of scholarly works in which she is cited. The more easily scanned hundred of them showed that Angie’s fact finding and interpretations are relied upon by people outside the predictable areas, that is, history and anthropology. Her scholarship shows up in economic studies, labor studies, migration studies, and medicine and health among others. Angie started her University of Chicago graduate studies focusing in international relations and then was diverted by having to create her scholarly opportunities where she was, in Oklahoma and the West. Nonetheless, her voice emerges in the international literature, in interesting ways. Studies on Indigenous Peoples’ experiences with colonialism regularly have invoked Angie’s scholarship. There is one article, for instance, in the Journal of Palestine Studies that looks at the Cherokee experiences. 2 Another article, in Ethnohistory, is a comparative study of the Black Carib and Black Seminoles.3

While historians might differ with me, in history Angie’s impact is manifested in how the modern history of the American Indian is written. She is often called a pioneer in ethnohistory, that is, history that includes the voice of the indigenous peoples, their viewpoint about their experiences. Distinct in her narratives is the world as the Native Peoples structured and lived it before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. For instance, her history of the Creeks, The Road to Disappearance 4, begins with the political and social organization with which the Creeks exercised their sovereignty. As a nation, according to Angie, the Creeks were especially gifted at governance, with their Red and White towns, organized to carry out the functions, respectively, of War and Peace time. As a strong nation the Creeks engaged in the full panoply of relations with other tribal nations and this included war. Thus, the title for the book’s first chapter is “In Savage Power.” Her account of their use of power, of peaceful relationships as well as war, includes how the Creeks’ diplomacy played the British, French, and Spanish against each other to serve the interests of the Creeks.

Angie’s model of history writing, a narrative with more than one viewpoint, continues to influence contemporary historians. For instance, James P. Ronda from the University of Tulsa, a historian recognized for his work on the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Indians, has directly used this model. In his preface to "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians'" he tells us the choice of the word “among” is most deliberate. “In the simplest terms, this book is about what happens when people from different cultural persuasions meet and deal with each other.”5 Ronda’s narrative is, in his words, “a full-scale contact study of the official and personal relations between the explorers and the Indians.” 6 For Ronda, like Angie, the Indians were thinking, deciding, and acting as they encountered new people and new experiences. They were not simply being acted upon by heroic Anglo-American figures.

In my advanced seminar in Indian law, I have the students read side-by-side the Ronda account of the winter spent with the Mandan and Hidatsa and the account by the Stephen Ambrose, a popular historian, who wrote Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. 7 The titles already tell you a lot. Ronda gives Lewis and Clark their due respect. For instance, Ronda looks at what they did as ethnographers, observing and trying to report to President Jefferson what they saw and analyzed. However, one can also appreciate the distinct interests, motives, and conduct of the Mandan and Hidatsa. The personal relations between and among the leaders on each side emerge as dialogues with consequences. Underlying Ronda’s Debo-type approach is the idea that American Indians were reasoning political actors in the history that occurred, even in the instances where they were outmatched by sheer military or the economic force of the Euro-Americans.

During the commemoration of the entry of Columbus in 1492, Alvin Josephy edited a marvelous collection of scholars’ accounts in America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus. 8 Historians such as Peter Iverson, Jay Miller, Clara Sue Kidwell (a Choctaw from Oklahoma) and other scholars write about the indigenous world that existed across the Americas before the Europeans arrived. Kidwell, who earned a Ph.D. in the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, writes about their indigenous systems of knowledge. The book’s authors write, among their topics, about sophisticated systems of agriculture with irrigation systems, science and astronomy, the arts, and the spiritual beliefs and customs that bound the Indigenous Peoples to nature and into productive communities.

Quite fittingly, Josephy’s introduction chides the “old” and inaccurate style of history that tells a counterfactual mythical story. In that story, the Americas were “terra nullius,” an international law term meaning land that was neither occupied nor owned by anyone as nothing was there. Here is one such account in a book that would typically be the text for the basic college history course. “The story of this new world …is a story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.” This is from the 1987 edition of American History, A Survey, co-authored by three eminent American historians, Richard N. Current, T. Harry, Williams, and Alan Brinkley.9 Josephy reminds us that these authors have willfully ignored, among other facts, the innovations that Native Peoples developed without the benefit of Western European advice. These include intricate calendar systems, land and sea trade networks extending for hundreds and even thousands of miles, cities larger at the time than any in Europe among the 75 million Indians in all the Americas (estimated at almost 6 million in the present day contiguous U.S.).

In Angie’s model of history, more than just scholarly skill, commitment to unearthing and accurately using facts, is involved. There is in Angie’s approach an inclusive perspective about the world, how it is actually populated with many actors, who should be given their due in the context of their experiences. Debo’s approach inherently involves recognizing the dignity and worth of Indigenous Peoples.

B. Angie Debo in the Law World

In Angie’s model of history, more than just scholarly skill, commitment to unearthing and accurately using facts, is involved. There is in Angie’s approach an inclusive perspective about the world, how it is actually populated with many actors, who should be given their due in the context of their experiences. Debo’s approach inherently involves recognizing the dignity and worth of Indigenous Peoples. In the law world Angie has an increasingly prominent voice and impact. First, the leading scholars in their books and law reviews rely on Debo’s work. The only two casebooks in Indian law that are available for the basic law course cite her works. 11 They must if they are to properly prepare students for the arcane and bedeviling background that lurks behind the significant issues and cases in Indian law.

Just as history has its counterfactual mythology, law has created repressive doctrines such as “discovery” and “conquest” that justify Euro-Americans unilaterally appropriating full property title from indigenous nations. Historical “rip and run” treatment by the dominant culture pervade in the history of Indigenous Peoples in the United States (U.S.) and the world. The lack of facts to substantiate European claims of discovery and conquest did not interfere with the construction of foundational Indian law cases from Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Marshall. The three core cases are Johnson v. McIntosh 12 , Cherokee v. Georgia 13 , and Worcester v. Georgia.14 All these cases take the popular belief and prejudices of the time and harden it into law to justify removing from Indians their property and, over time, to degrade the autonomy of the first sovereigns within our borders. Tribes have never renounced their sovereignty and the land losses, in coercive, sometimes invalid treaties, are injustices remaining to be factually and legally corrected. Angie’s hardnosed commitment to scholarly honesty is a wonderful antidote for opening students’ minds to the real stories.

Second, the modern day use of her scholarship has made it possible for some tribes to prevail when they raise long-standing claims for wrongs done in violation of their treaty rights and guarantees from U.S statutes and agreements. Special means, such as authorizing statutes and federal common law, have made it possible to overcome statutes of limitations and other claim-killing defenses that would have blocked the tribal quest for legal remedies. Reliance on Angie Debo’s accounts of the experiences and relationships between Indians and the federal government is manifest in every level of Indian law cases.

Many claims raised by tribes defy the usual ways to get evidence, e.g., there are no living witnesses. Supreme Court decisions, all the lower federal district courts and circuits, and the Court of Claims reach out to Debo’s respected work.15 Perhaps the most outstanding is Harjo v. Kleppe, 16 where the Creek Nation of Oklahoma sued the federal government for some one hundred forty-four (144) years of violating the Creek’s right to self-governance under their own laws and leaders. What had occurred during those many years required the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. to consider three treaties to remove the Creeks to Oklahoma territory, six statutes that attempted to terminate the Creek government and force allotment on the Creeks, and the Creek's own Constitution of 1867.

Ultimately, the Court held that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had willfully engaged in “bureaucratic imperialism” 17 to deny the Creeks the self government that entitled them to elect their legislative council and chief. To sort through the formal and informal facts of the relations, the Court performed an extensive historical review. Here is where Angie Debo is unique in the reliance all the parties and the Court placed on her scholarship.

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… 18

At the time of the lawsuit, already the war of experts in the court room was a common practice. Consequently, this statement about the value of Angie’s scholarship is especially significant.

The endurance of what is now called the “Harjo analysis” is evident in the number of cases where other tribes have invoked this approach to rely on unquestionably respected history scholarship to establish the facts underlying the case. The reliance on the findings in Harjo in particular has aided some tribes in obtaining remedies for long standing grievances. 19

C. Angie Debo’s Legacy of Hope

We cannot complete this dedication without touching on Angie’s third contribution, the legacy of hope, rather than fear and destructive mistrust. Perhaps this is the most important of Angie’s legacies. We know from the oral history interviews that Glenna Matthews, Aletha Hollis and I conducted, as well as Shirley A. Leckie’s biography of Angie, 20 of the hardships and injustices Angie endured because she was a woman denied her opportunity in the academic world. Despite her immense talents, educational degrees, and accomplishments, she could not obtain a tenured position in a history department. In 1934 the American Historical Association awarded her the Dunning Prize for The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic.21 Even in the Depression, a white male with such an accomplishment would have been hired somewhere.

Angie, perhaps drawing on what I call pioneer’s strength, resisted self-pity. Somehow she drew on her internal strength, not only to persevere (what she called “drive” in the documentary). She stated her goal of making a creative use of life, where service and integrity are central to the quality of one’s life. Angie had such commitment and integrity that she refused to let outside forces destroy her as in situations that had killed the spirit and intellect of others.

Equally important as her seriousness was the sense of humor that enriched her life. When Angie served on the Board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, during the Viet Nam War, she often spoke on the First Amendment and why dissenters against that war should have their constitutional rights protected. Angie was an ardent believer in the special rights in the U.S. Constitution. As the person who dispatched her, I would sometimes discuss with Angie her experiences in debating those who would sacrifice the Constitution for shallow patriotism. Angie let me know that as equipped as she was, she could not have a battle of wits with unarmed people.

We are at hard times now. We definitely need hope, lots of it. Recently I encountered a book The Impossible Will Take A Little While, 22 in which Paul Rogat Loeb has edited essays of moral strength and commitment that sustain hope in extreme times. Among the writers is Václav Havel, the Czechoslavian thinker, writer, and the first President of the new Czech Republic. Havel states:

Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. 23

When I read this I knew this is what Angie gave us: a horizon of hope. That horizon of hope inherently includes that the here and now is not the defining power of who we are, what we can be, and what our future will be.

I chose to go into law because, despite its idiosyncrasies and failures, it also offers possibilities for a world better than the one my generation inherited. My commitment to developing programs in Indian law was to prepare the future lawyers, Indian and non-Indian, who could undo some longstanding injustices that blemish the justice proclaimed by the U.S. Especially for the small number of American Indian students in the nation’s law schools, their commitment to their indigenous communities, to their clans and culture, has to sustain them through the hardships of law school. I show the documentary on Angie every year to the students in the basic Indian law class. Her impact is an eye-opening, mind-opening, heart-enlarging experience for all the students.

Here are just two comments from some of these students. The first is Anna Martinez, a non-Indian student:

This documentary is something I think about currently as I am in the Indian Water Rights course. Native peoples’ control over their own natural resources seems to be hindered by Anglo society’s unwillingness to recognize brown peoples’ sovereignty over their own lands and their destiny. What Dr. Debo did in her work was to expose the extent to which imperialism and manifest destiny guides the nation…her piercing of this nation’s thin veil of “innocence” is relevant today.

The American Indian law students, which at the University of New Mexico are from all over the U.S. and also indigenous students from other countries, are energized by the strength and hope emanating from Angie. Here is one such student, Sherri Thomas from Taos Pueblo:

To call Angie Debo an inspiration is inadequate. To see the visage of a frail woman in her nineties belies the perseverance and brilliance of her mind. Her story is not one of adversity, but really how tenacity and knowledge will ultimately overcome ignorance. She wrote down the truth and preserved history so that the ignorance would not perpetuate itself. The true sadness of the film is that afterwards I was not able to speak to her in person and absorb some of her energy. Fortunately, she has left me the legacy of her work to learn from and to constantly inspire me.

Even in disheartening times, Angie’s legacy strengthens the next generation.

Angie simply said it all. In her essay, “To Establish Justice,” 24 she prodded us to join those who would right age-old wrongs and prevent new-age atrocities against the human spirit. Angie said that if we win, by her terms, in what seems at times like an almost hopeless cause, we will have the consciousness that wrongs can be righted. Most of all, we can experience that justice can overcome entrenched power and that our lives and efforts do count.

We have been fortunate in having Angie among us. In this dedication, we know she is still here, watching over our shoulders at this very minute. Thank you all for being here today and thank you Angie for your many gifts to us.


1 Henry Weihofen, Professor of Law, University of New Mexico School of Law.

2 N. Finkelstein, "History Verdict -The Cherokee Case," 24 Journal of Palestine Studies 32 (Summer 1995)

3 R. B. Bateman, Africans and Indians – A Comparative Study of the Black Carib and Black Seminole, 37 Ethnohistory 1 (Winter 1990).

4 The Civilization of the American Indian, vol. 22. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1934.

5 University of Nebraska Press, 1984 at xi.

6 Id at xii.

7 Id. at 129-132; Stephen Ambrose, Simon & Schuster, 1996 at 192-201;

8 Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., Editor, Knopf, 1992.

9 Cited in Josephy, at page 6.

10 Josephy, at page 6.

11 David H. Getches, Charles F. Wilkinson, & Robert A. Williams, Jr., Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law (4th ed, West 1998); Robert N. Clinton, Carole E. Goldberg, Rebecca Tsosie, American Indian Law: Native Nations and the Federal System, Cases and Materials (4th ed., LexisNexis 2003).

12 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

13 30 U.S. 1 (1831).

14 31 U.S. 515 (1832).

15 For instance, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma v. U.S., 397 U.S. 620 (1970); U.S. v. John, 437 U.S. 634 (1978); Duro v. Reina, 495 U.S. 676 (1990); Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma v. U.S., 21 Cl. Ct. 565 (1990); Indian Country, U.S.A., Inc. v. State of Okla. Ex rel. Oklahoma Tax Comm., 829 F. 2d 967 (10th Cir. 1987; and Muscogee (Creek) Nation v. Hodel, 670 F. Supp. 434 (D.D.C. 1987)

16 420 F. Supp. 1110 (D.C.D.C. 1976), affirmed as Harjo v. Andrus, 581 F. 2d 949 (D.C. Cir. 1978).

17 420 F. Supp. at 1130.

18 420 F. Supp. at 1119, n. 6.

19 E.g., Seneca-Cayuga Tribe v. Oklahoma, 874 F. 2d 709 (10th Cir. 1989)(State lacks jurisdiction to enjoin Seneca-Cayuga and Quapaw Tribes operating bingo games on Indian trust land); Indian Country, U.S.A.,Inc. v. Oklahoma, 829 F. 2d 967 (10th Cir. 1987)(State preempted from regulating or imposing sales tax on bingo enterprise of the Muscogee Creek Nation); Morris v. Watt, 640 F. 2d 404 (1981)(New governments of Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations not valid under their prior constitutional provisions).

20 Angie Debo: Pioneering Historian, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

21 The Civilization of the American Indian, vol. 6. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1934; second edition, 1961.

22 The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, Basic Books, 2004.

23 Id., Václav Havel, “An Orientation of the Heart,” at 82.

24 Western Historical Quarterly, VII, No. 4 (October 1976) at 405-412.