The power of history


The office of Dr. Brad Lookingbill, 12-year professor of history, seems crowded. Books line the shelves behind him. Books teeter in a pile in front of him and at his desk. He grabs and opens books to illustrate a point. Lookingbill has written two books thus far, but it quickly becomes apparent that the office is not teeming with books as with ideas.

"Maybe the power of history lies in its idiosyncrasies, its difference from our time and thinking," he said. "As the bard says, the past is a foreign country. We struggle to find that balance between relevance and antiquarianism; but maybe there's no need. Maybe that's the point: to make students think about history not as a story unto itself but as a tool to understanding how very different people responded to unique circumstances and problems."

He's written two books thus far. Born in McAllister, Okla., writing about the 1870s imprisonment of Plains Indians in Florida and on the Dust Bowl as American myth came naturally to him. Oklahoma was, and is, one of the perilously few bastions of Indian culture and the heartland of the Dust Bowl. Some of his extended family still live there.

Lookingbill earned a bachelor's degree in education at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in 1991 and went on to earn a master's then a Ph.D. at the University of Toledo in 1995 ("I loved Toledo! All that rust."). From 1995 to 1996, he taught history at Independence Community College in Kansas, and joined Columbia College at the dawn of the Brouder era in 1996.

Lookingbill credits Drs. Brouder and Smith with his longevity and for the college's flourishing academic and intellectual culture. "I never expected to be here 12 years; I have to say I owe it to Drs. Brouder and Smith," he said. Lookingbill added that the then-new administration pushed through the upgrades in faculty salaries, grants for research and the other enhancements that have made teaching at Columbia College more rewarding, more challenging and a better academic environment for students. "It never seems to stop. Each year, there are more opportunities for growth."

One opportunity that worked out very well for Lookingbill was Army National Guard and reserve duty from 1988 to 1994. "I was on alert for the first Gulf War," he remembered. "I was a gun chief in a field artillery battalion and actually began writing out my will. But the ground war was all over in days and I was never deployed. I was very, very lucky. " More so, he said, because his military service paid for his education.

He has since earned the Trustee's Award for Teaching Excellence in 2007 and the Governor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2002. Yale University has also acknowledged his expertise in western Americana with a fellowship. Lookingbill and his wife Deidra were blessed with a son, Augustus Pierce Lookingbill, in February 2006. His expertise in childraising? Growing.

His first book, "Dust Bowl, USA: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, 1929-1941" is a look at the stories that grew out of this ecological collapse in newspapers, magazines, books, films and songs. The resulting apocalyptic imagery, said Lookingbill, has been embedded in our national consciousness. Sometimes, he said, he could see government agents and others constructing a narrative as they wrote reports; in essence, inventing history.

"War Dance at Fort Marion: Plains Indian War Prisoners," his second book, is about the imprisonment of 72 warriors and chiefs from five different tribes near St. Augustine, Fla., from 1875 to 1878. "This was a very tricky story to tell," Lookingbill said. "The prisoners of war were crowded into a fort with their ancient enemies, and had to adapt not only to each other but also to non-Indian cultures." The fort's commander turned the ordeal into an educational experiment, with formal lessons, trips into town to observe urban living, capitalism and other forms of modernity.

"Many Americans have this idea from movies and TV that there was one Indian culture, frozen in time, like a mammoth – but in fact the hundreds of different Indian cultures were and are adaptive, resilient, flexible and accommodative," Lookingbill said. Many of the Plains peoples, he said, were nomadic and "always moving, always changing, always adapting. There was no single way of Indian life. This [the Florida incarceration] was just one more adaptation." Some of the captives succeeded as teachers, missionaries and Army scouts; still, Lookingbill said Plains cultures have changed in ways that no one in the 1870s could have imagined.

Lookingbill is currently working on a textbook covering 400 years of American military history that consists of primary documents from "Powhatan Describes War and Peace among the Natives (1607)" to President George W. Bush's now-ironic "mission accomplished " address aboard an aircraft carrier. The contents are not yet fixed, but coverage of, for example, the Vietnam War may include such diametrically opposed texts as Tran Thi Gung's hard-headed "Tunnel Warfare" (1962) to Barry Sadler's clich├ęd "Ballad of the Green Beret" (1966). His take on the Vietnam War? Typically idiosyncratic. Lookingbill said he sees it not as the folly of a superpower bogged down in an unwinnable civil war but the genesis of today's professional, all-volunteer army.