Letters to the Editor
The Life of Angie Debo
John F. Murphy Jr., January 1989
When Dr. Angie Debo began her career studying history, she was one of a brave handful of women who were challenging an intensely masculine preserve. Indeed, during the period of Dr. Debo's studies, there were few women on the faculty of history departments of Americas' colleges and universities. Born in a family of pioneers, (she came to her adopted state of Oklahoma as a young girl in a covered wagon), Angie Debo would remain a trailblazer throughout her long, vastly productive, scholarly career.
Early on in her professional life, Dr. Debo became interested in the Five Civilized Indian Nations—the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and the Seminole—and their tragic experience in Oklahoma, which had formerly been given to them in perpetuity as the Indian Territory, before statehood in 1907. In her classic work, And Still The Waters Run, Dr. Debo, going against contemporary historical opinion, chronicled how the Native Americans of the Indian Territory had been systematically defrauded out of their land by whites once oil was found in the Territory. During this then controversial work, Dr. Debo thus became a pathfinder in the young field of American Indian history (that was almost single-handedly created by another female scholar, Helen Hunt Jackson in her Century of Dishonor), but also in the revisionist school, where she shared the honors with Charles and Mary Beard.
When Angie Debo died in February 1988, after being given a well-deserved tribute by the state of Oklahoma, she had no blood survivors. Yet, in a larger sense, Dr. Debo left behind her a legion of inheritors among those who followed her trail in the field of Native American history, which was dear to her heart, as well as revisionist history. Yet, in a more profound sense, her legacy has been carried on by the scores of women who have followed her in the field of history, for whom she bravely flung open wide the doors of academia. It was appropriate that Dr. Debo was honored for her contributions to the study of Native American history with the AHA's Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1987, it was conferred on her by then AHA President Natalie Zemon Davis, respected author of The Return of Martin Guerre.
Assessing Dr. Debo's position in the scholarship of American history, one feels that something must be done by her colleagues to mark the passing of this grand lady and fearless historian, who left such an incalculable legacy to the men and women who follow her as seekers of historical truth. Therefore, I would like, with all due humility, to propose that the American Historical Association establish an award in Angie Debo's name in the field of Native American history, to honor Dr. Debo for her outstanding contribution to this area of study, as well as to do honor to the Native Americans she loved, who first settled this land when the rivers ran clean and the sun set in an unpolluted sky.
John F. Murphy Jr.
Ed. Note: The life and scholarship of Angie Debo was the topic of a segment of the PBS series The American Experience. The one-hour show entitled "Indians, Outlaws, and Angie Debo," premiered nationwide October 18, 1989. See the article "Service and Integrity: The Life of Angie Debo," Perspectives, December 1988.