In Winnipeg last week, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, I had the privilege of participating in a panel* in honor of Theda Perdue, one of my graduate mentors. Here are the brief comments I offered on Theda and her leadership abilities:
My thanks to Rose Stremlau for inviting me to join this distinguished panel, to my fellow panelists for their narratives, to Theda Perdue for her friendship, guidance, and inspiration, and to the First Nations of western Canada for allowing us to hold this session in their homeland.
I’ve been thinking about leadership lately, and why some leaders have such a great record of success. My current research project is a history of the Chickasaw nation, whose survival in the eighteenth century depended in large part on the acumen of their chiefs and captains. Historians have described Chickasaw leaders in this era as divided into factions, depending on whether they sought the favor of the Spanish or the Americans. On closer inspection, it appears that men like George Colbert and Ugulaycabe sought instead to advance the collective fortunes of their entire nation, and to do so not by allying with one empire or another but by forming the most extensive possible networks of trade and alliance. Piomingo, to take the best example, spent his political career making friends with most of the Chickasaws’ distant connections: with the Cherokees (he had spent his youth with them), with the new commonwealth of Virginia, with George Washington and his cronies in Philadelphia, with James Robertson and his fellow settler-speculators in Nashville, with the officers of the American army at Cincinnati, and even, through his associates the Colberts, with the Spanish. Piomingo was no stooge of empire, no pursuer of self-aggrandizement. He simply saw that success for his people depended on reaching out to outsiders, making them friends and allies, and persuading them that the fortunes of one group rose or fell with the others in the network.
The themes of friendship, alliance, mutual aid, and networking necessarily bring me to Theda Perdue. I first encountered Professor Perdue when I applied to the graduate program at the University of Kentucky. She very kindly wrote me a letter of welcome and encouragement. Noting her interest in the senior-thesis chapter I had enclosed with my application, Theda went on the sing the praises of U.K.’s faculty and, especially, its graduate students, “whom I think you will find challenging, professional, and ambitious as well as congenial and supportive.” But even if I did not come to Lexington, Dr. Perdue said I should consider her a friend and mentor. “If you would like me or Mike Green to take a look at your…work on Native Americans with a view towards publishing an article or presenting a professional paper, please let us know. Our role as teachers does not end at the university boundary or state line, and we are happy to help you in any way we can.” A close friend of mine asked when I read her this letter, twenty-three years later, “Who in the academic world does something that fantastic?” Obviously, someone exceptional, someone more interested in supporting scholarship and teaching, and in building the ethnohistorical nation, than in self-aggrandizement.
In any event, when I began my studies at Kentucky I became a student of Lance Banning, an intellectual and political historian of the early American republic, and undertook a dissertation on the Federalists’ policy toward First Nations. These subjects lay outside of Theda’s area of interest, and yet she and Michael Green still treated me as well as any of their own students, pushing me to make connections with other beginning scholars and to present my work at national conferences. As I began my own career I began to see that this kind of network-building and encouragement were not activities Dr. Perdue confined to her discussions with graduate students. She combined her two professional domains, the interdisciplinary study of Native North America and the study of the American South, not only in her staggeringly prolific scholarship but in her leadership of the American Society for Ethnohistory and the Southern Historical Association, and of course in the series on Southeastern Native Americans she co-edited for Nebraska with Michael Green. She encouraged Native Americanist scholars to build relationships with presses normally known for Southern or for political history, in an effort to bring entities like UNC Press or Virginia into our scholarly network.
And she sought, either directly or through her former students, to make friends and shape agendas in some of the most conventional, even reactionary associations. In conversation with me some years ago about the Liberty Fund, a quasi-libertarian foundation that hosts scholarly study groups in luxury resorts, Theda characterized the organization as a far-right think tank (essentially true), and in the same breath asked me to make sure she and Mike were invited to their next conference. I maintain she was less interested in the Liberty Fund’s promise of good food and wine than in the possibility of making contacts – including prominent law professors and judges – who would benefit her students, colleagues, and professional associates. Concurrently, Theda has maintained an indirect relationship with the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. SHEAR’s membership includes some deeply reactionary men, and its annual meetings always fall at the wrong time of year for anyone engaged in serious research. However, Theda’s students, the “southeastern Mafia” as it were, have turned the Society into an organization far more amenable to Native American studies, and one of them, Craig Friend, is currently the SHEAR president. Theda’s influence, like Piomingo’s, extends into groups that may sometimes seem antithetical to our enterprise. They will not remain so for long. The Perduvian network has proven more extensive and persistent than the Piomingan, and has grown in pursuit of goals at least as laudable. And unlike Piomingo, Theda built her community entirely without the use of artillery. Well, so far as I know.
* "Scholar, Mentor, Advocate, Friend: A Celebration of Theda Perdue," 14 October 2017.