Born in Beattie, Kansas, Angie Elbertha Debo moved with her parents, Edward P. and Lina E. in a covered wagon to the Oklahoma Territory when she was nine years old. Her family settled in the rural community of Marshall, where Debo would live, on and off, for the rest of her life. She earned a teacher’s certificate and began teaching when she was 16. Because Marshall did not have a high school until 1910, Debo did not receive her high school diploma until 1913, when she was already 23 years old.
She soon went on to the University of Oklahoma, where she earned an A.B. degree in history in 1918. She taught history at Enid High School for four years before taking time to study at the University of Chicago, where she earned a master’s degree in international relations in 1924 (women were not allowed to major in history). Her master’s thesis (co-authored with her thesis supervisor J. Fred Rippy) was published in 1924 as part of the Smith College Studies in History, under the title The Historical Background of the American Policy of Isolationism; The historian Manfred Jonas has written that this was the first “scholarly literature” on the subject of American isolationism. Despite this early success, Debo said that she found it difficult to obtain a teaching position; most college history departments at the time would not consider hiring a woman. She taught at West Texas State Teachers College in Canyon, Texas and was curator of its Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, while working towards a PhD in history from the University of Oklahoma, which she received in 1933.
Angie Debo was an American historian who wrote 13 books and hundreds of articles about Native American and Oklahoma history. After a long career marked by difficulties (ascribed both to her gender and to the controversial content of some of her books), she was acclaimed as Oklahoma’s “greatest historian” and acknowledged as “an authority on Native American history, a visionary, and a historical heroine in her own right.” As an historian of American Indian history, Angie E. Debo utilized both archival materials and oral history to describe the complicated relationship between tribes and the federal government
After Chicago, Debo taught in the demonstration school at West Texas State Teachers’ College at Canyon, Texas. By the early 1930s she began work on a doctorate under Dale at OU. Her dissertation examined the history of the Choctaws from the perspectives of Choctaw people. At a time when most historians of American Indians wrote from a non-Indian perspective based largely on government documents, she utilized these sources but also incorporated oral history, tribal records, and anthropological studies. At the time, she did not think of her treatment as something new, but later researchers point to The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic (1934) as one of the early examples of an ethnohistorical approach. Her book received the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association as the most important contribution to studies in American history in 1934.
After almost a decade at West Texas, Debo returned to Marshall to live with her parents and to write a host of books ranging from state and local history to biography to American Indian history. Her most controversial book, And Still the Waters Run (1940), examines the effects of the termination of tribal governments and the forced liquidation of tribal lands among Oklahoma’s Five Tribes. Threatened by libel suits from prominent Oklahoma businesspeople and politicians named in the manuscript, the University of Oklahoma Press declined to publish the book. When editor and press director Joseph A. Brandt left the state to take a position at Princeton University Press, her “most important” book found a home. Other significant works include The Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians (1941) and Geronimo (1976).
During the latter part of the 1930s and early 1940s Debo worked on two Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects. Beginning in 1937 she served as editor of the Indian-Pioneer Papers, a compilation of oral history interviews from Oklahoma’s older Indian people and early homesteaders. Many of these interviews became the primary source material for her later study of the Creeks. She accepted her second of her WPA jobs in 1940. Her work as director of the Oklahoma guide under the Federal Writers’ Project resulted in the publication of Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (1941), co-edited by John M. Oskison. In the 1950s Debo returned to university employment as a librarian and researcher at Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State University). Her papers are held in Special Collections at the Edmon Low Library at OSU.
With her lifelong commitment to social justice, Debo served on the Oklahoma board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1985 Oklahoma honored her work by placing her portrait in the Rotunda of the State Capitol. In 1988, at age ninety-eight, Angie Debo received the Award for Scholarly Distinction from the American Historical Association. She died two weeks later on February 21, 1988.
The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic
Debo’s dissertation, published as The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, examined the impact of the American Civil War on the Choctaw Tribe. It received the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association. University of Oklahoma Press director Savoie Lottinville later described this book as a “pioneering effort” in Native American history that gave the effect of “seeing events from inside the tribe, rather than from a purely Anglo-American perspective.”
Debo’s next book was more controversial. Completed in 1936, And Still the Waters Run detailed how Oklahoma’s Five Civilized Tribes were systematically deprived of the lands and resources granted to them by treaty, after their forced removal from the southeastern United States. Debo wrote that these treaties were supposed to protect the tribal lands “as long as the waters run, as long as the grass grows”; but, after the 1887 Dawes Act enacted a policy of private ownership that was eventually forced on the tribes, the system was manipulated to swindle the Indians out of their property. In the words of the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, Debo’s book “advanced a crushing analysis of the corruption, moral depravity, and criminal activity that underlay white administration and execution of the allotment policy.
These charges were controversial; many of the responsible parties were still alive, and the book encountered considerable resistance. The University of Oklahoma Press withdrew as publisher, and Debo’s academic career was sidetracked. She took a position writing for the Federal Writers Project in Oklahoma, but her work for the travel guide Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State was extensively revised without her permission.
And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes was finally published in 1940. The former director of the University of Oklahoma Press, Joseph A. Brandt, moved to the Princeton University Press and published the book there. The book is now described as a classic and an influence for writers of Native American history from Oliver LaFarge to Vine Deloria, Jr. and Larry McMurtry.
Although Debo “never found a permanent position in an academic history department,” and for a time after publication of And Still the Waters Run, she was barred from teaching in Oklahoma, in her later years she received increasing acclaim and recognition. Her work was seen as a rebuttal to the Frontier Thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, presenting a history of westward expansion based not on the ideal of manifest destiny but on the exploitation of the Native Americans. Debo served on the board of directors of the Association on American Indian Affairs, and of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She also continued to publish extensively. She wrote one fictional work, Prairie City, the Story of an American Community, based on the history of her hometown Marshall. She finished her last book, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place at the age of 85.
Honors and legacy
- Her last book received an Western Wrangler award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center (now called the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum).
- She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1950.
- She was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984.
- She received honorary degrees from Wake Forest University and Phillips University.
- She received awards from the American Historical Association, Western History Association, American Indian Historians Association, and American Association for State and Local History, among many others.
- 1985, the State of Oklahoma commissioned an official portrait of Debo by artist Charles Banks Wilson; it was placed in the rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City.
- 1987 – The American Historical Association gave her its Award for Scholarly Distinction. Governor Henry Bellmon presented this award to her at a January 1988 ceremony in Marshall.
Debo died a few weeks later, on February 21, 1988 at the age of 98. She left her papers, books, and literary rights to Oklahoma State University, where she had worked as a librarian and researcher.
- 1994, Edmond Public Schools named an elementary school after her.
- 1997 – Debo received the Ralph Ellison Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.
- She is one of the 21 Oklahoma writers featured on the state’s official Literary Map of Oklahoma.
- 1988 – Debo was the subject of an episode entitled “Indians, Outlaws, and Angie Debo”, of the PBS series The American Experience.
- 2000 – The University of Oklahoma Press published a biography of Debo written by Shirley A. Leckie and entitled Angie Debo: Pioneering Historian
- She has also been the subject of numerous monographs and articles.
- 2007 – In his inaugural address, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry called Debo “our state’s greatest historian.” He quoted Debo’s 1949 observation about Oklahoma’s unusual history:
- 2010 – The Stillwater Public Library in Stillwater, Oklahoma dedicated a bronze statue of Angie Debo on Nov 18, 2010. Created by local artist, Phyllis Mantik, the statue depicts a young Angie Debo sitting on a rock with several books by her side. The artist chose a young Angie Debo to focus on her character and highlight that at an early age she chose the life of a scholar rather than what was expected of a woman of her time. To highlight Debo’s importance to Oklahoma’s Native American Tribes, the base of the statue is surrounded by the seals of Oklahoma’s 38 federally recognized Native American Tribes. The state seal of Oklahoma sits on top of the base. Near the statue is a plaque describing Angie Debo’s life and her importance to the community, the state and the nation.