Ayn Rand’s been getting lots of press again lately. Accordingly, I’ve been subjected to various pontifications on her dedication to individualism and rational self-interest in the media. You could say there are similarities between me and Howard Roark, the hero of her book The Fountainhead. He is an idealist who rejects the conventional practices of his profession. I totally understand turning your back on the guild to stay true to yourself and your vision of your work. I left the historical profession some years back to become an independent scholar. But, whereas Roark is ultimately celebrated as a great master, I sort through lots of Russian and Chinese spam, have to work a day job, and have no patron to promote me. Roark and his ego offer little inspiration to me then, but I don’t need Rand’s fictional archetype. I have a better standard.
Angie Debo was a living, breathing intellectual visionary. Barred from a position as a professor at a research university because she was female, she worked a number of other jobs — in a museum, as a government researcher, and for a university library. On the side, Debo wrote a number of books that have become essential in the study of the modern history of Native Americans in our country. One of these, And Still the Waters Run, was originally withheld by the publisher because of its controversial nature. It described the systematic theft of land from American Indians by representatives of the U.S. government, despite the fact that treaties with the nations promised them their lands as long as the waters ran and the grass grew. Debo named names and in 1936, when the book went to the publisher, many of the figures involved were still alive. They threatened to sue, and the University of Oklahoma Press balked at putting the book out. It was four years before it was published by another press — largely through the efforts of its Director, who recognized the significance of the work. Debo’s history was infinitely different than the racist historiography that predominated in the profession then (and still stains our work today). This was in part because she dared to use oral interviews with surviving members of the Indian tribes as sources and she was critical of government bureaucrats who referred to the Indians as “savages” and looked down on their cultures. While the male-dominated profession talked of the destiny of white settlers to build a great country here, Debo described the exploitation of the Indians and the injustice done to them. Her work was unwelcome in the forties and fifties, when patriotism ran high and segregation was still the practice. In time, however, later generations recognized her innovative interpretations and admirable research. Now that she is no longer with us, scholars in the field recognize her fine scholarship and dedication to her work. What’s more, she’s remembered as a “warrior-scholar” who fought to help those she studied, because her work spurred her to do what she could to rectify the injustice that had been perpetrated against them. Service and scholarship were her virtues.
This is my role model. She never gave up doing her research and writing independently. The profession rejected her, but she found a way to continue on her own terms. In the end, she wrote classics that did nothing less than redefine the field in which she worked. The guild cannot ignore her work now. She forced a new historiography from the outside. This is my aim: I don’t want anything less than to write revolutionary work on my terms. The profession may not welcome me or my methods either, but I’m not interested in being in tight with them. I want to knock them off their feet like she did. And, I want to make a difference in our society with my work too. I want it to be useful as well as informative. I wish to be a “warrior-scholar.” Debo was the epitome of all to which I aspire. For me, she is the standard.