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.
In 1976, when historian Angie Debo set these words to paper in her essay, “To Establish Justice,” she was 86 years old. Grandmotherly in appearance, she spoke not just from the wisdom of age but from the position of a “scholar warrior,” someone who uses their immense intelligence to secure justice. Debo’s 11th and last book, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (1976) had also been published that year. Her national network of over 250 groups and individuals had, in the years immediately preceding this time, successfully secured water rights for Arizona’s Havasupai Indians and title rights for Alaska Natives.
Debo’s career as a scholar warrior and as a pioneering ethno-historian is remarkable not just for its outstanding scholarship and its attempt to right injustices, but for having flourished at all in an environment in which women historians were systematically ignored or pushed aside. The winner of the 1934 Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association for her outstanding dissertation, and later first book: The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic (1934), Debo could not find stable employment until 1947 when she was hired as curator of maps at the Oklahoma State University Library. By this time she had written a number of other books including And Still the Waters Run (1940), documenting the “criminal conspiracy [by whites in Oklahoma] to cheat these Indians out of their land,” and The Road to Disappearance (1941), a history of the Creek Nation. Both works are considered so authoritative that the federal courts have repeatedly called them the “pre-eminent works in the field” and have used them with the agreement of all parties involved in numerous cases involving American Indian peoples. Repeatedly passed over for jobs that went to less talented men, Debo received many awards and recognitions throughout her career, culminating in the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction just before her death at age 98 in 1988. In receiving this award, she became the first woman historian and still the only independent scholar to be so honored.
Since the opening of the Angie Debo Papers in the early 1990s, scholars from around the world have utilized the collection. It consists of the unexpurgated manuscripts and research notes from all of Debo’s books and journal articles as well as many of the speeches and papers she presented, extensive personal and business correspondence with a wide array of private citizens and public figures on numerous issues, photographs, personal diaries, newspaper clippings with marginalia, her personal library, and other personal papers including genealogical research on the Debo family.
Collection Profile and Overview: Jennifer Paustenbaugh
Illustrations: Phil Shocley