Writing a New Page in History

Amanda Cobb-Greetham has earned acclaim for building Native American studies.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Amanda Cobb-Greetham
Amanda Cobb-Greetham ('93 M.S.)

As she was beginning to study for her doctorate, Amanda Cobb-Greetham's ('93 M.S.) aunt gave her a box of her grandmother's belongings -- letters she wrote, reports and other items from her schooling.

"It made me feel like I was reaching through time and touching the past," Cobb-Greetham says.

Those personal items were the foundation for Cobb-Greetham's groundbreaking career.

As an interdisciplinary scholar, she has helped build Native American Studies in academia. This year, she became a member of the Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame and received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. She has written one award-winning book and is at work on another. While working as administrator of the Division of History and Culture for Chickasaw Nation, she was instrumental in launching the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Now a professor and former head of the Native American Studies department at the University of Oklahoma, her work touches on both family history and the history of the Chickasaw Nation, a Tribal nation based in Oklahoma.

When she received a letter in the mail saying she won the Guggenheim, she felt a sense of validation. She noted that not many Indigenous scholars have earned the fellowship.

"It is quite an honor," she says. "It is a faith in my work and confidence and that can have great meaning -- that is how I hope to use it."

Powerful Stories

Her courses at UNT helped pave the way for her work.

But when she first enrolled, she wasn't sure what career path to take.

She had finished earning an education degree at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant and knew she wanted to attended graduate school. A professor recommended UNT's communications studies program, saying the program would be a great fit for her.

"The master's program really focused on research and writing, and those things have served me well throughout my career," says Cobb-Greetham, who credits professors Jay Allison and the late John Gossett as major influences at UNT.

After she graduated from UNT, she studied English at the University of Oklahoma, where she is now a professor. She was frequently searching for authors and texts about Indigenous cultures. Most colleges didn't have these types of classes back then so, she says, "You had to put these things together."

At the time, texts about Native Americans placed sovereignty at the center, without the voices of the people. But through her work, she could include her own family members – as she did with the materials in her grandmother's box, which became the starting point for the cultural analysis in her book, Listening to Our Grandmothers' Stories: The Bloomfield Academy for Chickasaw Females, 1852-1949. Her grandmother attended Bloomfield, a boarding school that was run by the Chickasaw people, while the federal government ran other boarding schools that stripped Native Americans of their culture and traditions. Her grandmother was at the intersection of those two worlds.

When she reads the words of her ancestors, she says, "It's powerful. It's complicated and hard. People are complex. Their life stories are complex."

'Everybody Has a Way to Contribute'

She says the theme of her studies is embracing the complexity of history, not finding the heroes and villains. That thread has run through her books, which include The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations and the upcoming Bright Golden Haze, a phrase taken from the musical Oklahoma! that serves as a metaphor to show how history is both highlighted and obscured. Using the Guggenheim Fellowship for research, she will focus on how Oklahoma history and the erasure of Native Americans is presented in American culture.

The theme also runs through the stories and artifacts featured at the Chickasaw Cultural Center, where she oversaw its museums, archives and other programs from 2007 to 2012. The work was difficult, but the results were gratifying.

"It was overwhelming because I had been a professor reading and writing for a living," she says. "I had to think about how the whole space functions, everything from how visitor services work to a connected space with a theme that runs throughout."

When it opened, she thought, "Oh my, this is lovely. I'm in love with this place."

And now she's a part of history with her induction into the Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame.

"What I teach is teaching through history of lifetimes," she says. "That's one person's lifetime. People in the Chickasaw Hall of Fame -- whatever they did was what they needed at that particular time. There was very little written or public history about the Chickasaw people. That was how I stepped up in my lifetime. Everybody has talent and everybody has a way to contribute."