Conversations with the great humanist James Ronda

Conversations with the great humanist James Ronda


TULSA, Okla. — A city of more than 300,000 built largely by oil, bestriding the Arkansas River in northeast Oklahoma. The same Great Plains, more or less, just 800 miles south of North Dakota. If my quick calculations are correct, Tulsa has 13 buildings taller than the North Dakota Capitol, including two giants: the CityPlex Tower at 60 stories and the Bok Center at 52. It also is the home of two great art museums, the Gilcrease, built by oil, and the Philbrook, also oil. Oklahoma now ranks fifth in oil production, North Dakota second (but stay tuned). Tulsa also has a great university, which is why I am here.

Before I get started in earnest, however, I just want to pause to hope that our payoff for the wholesale industrialization of our Western quadrant is a philanthropy boom that benefits Williston, Dickinson, Minot and, above all, Bismarck (our Tulsa?), and gives solid sustainable support to such nonprofits as the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, the Fort Lincoln Foundation, etc. Texas and Oklahoma, at the other end of the Plains, are culturally enriched because some of their oil gazillionaires chose to invest in museums, galleries, theaters, parks, gardens, fountains and universities. The historic problem of North Dakota has been that the wealth generated here tends to leave the state and we are generally left holding a bag that contains 30 pieces of silver.

This is our moment, and we are politely requesting our cultural payoff.

I came to Tulsa with two giant bags of lights, video cameras and tripods to interview one of the most remarkable people I have ever known, Professor James Ronda, now emeritus professor of history at the University of Tulsa. For many years, Ronda held the H.G. Barnard Chair in Western American History at TU (endowed by oil). Among other things, Ronda is one of the greatest Lewis and Clark scholars in the world. He’s the author of what is arguably the most important book about the expedition, “Lewis and Clark Among the Indians” (1984). We had invited him to come to the national Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation annual meeting (symposium) in Bismarck and Washburn at the end of July 2013, but he can’t come.

So I suggested that I travel to Tulsa to interview him on camera about the future of Lewis and Clark studies. He agreed, so here I am serving as videographer, audio engineer, grip and interlocutor, all at the same time.

And loving it. Professor Ronda will be 70 in a few days. He’s been retired for a couple of years. He speaks with passion, information, humor and complete sentences. We did three hours of an interview Tuesday (the day I’m writing this), planned five or six hours Wednesday and two more Thursday morning, before I lug all that stuff home, including 10 precious little SD cards full of insight and wisdom.

“Lewis and Clark Among the Indians” was what Professor Ronda carefully calls a radical book. He simply turned the lens from the usual white man’s narrative of the 1804-06 expedition, and tried to see the Lewis and Clark story from the Native American point of view. Ronda and his wife, Jean, traveled the trail in 1980. He read everything he could get his hands on, studied tribal traditions and oral histories, but above all examined the journals of the expedition with brilliant and painstaking care, to excavate, if possible, the Indian point of view. Not an easy task, because Lewis and Clark were traveling fast, with a very demanding set of Enlightenment priorities, and they were inevitably “Eurocentric.” Ronda spent five years on the project and the result, “Lewis and Clark Among the Indians,” was not only a radical, but a revolutionary book, a watershed study that changed permanently the way we look at the Lewis and Clark expedition. He wrote a book that anyone who wants to understand Lewis and Clark must read. What could be greater than that?

My cameras are set up in Jim’s living room, which is part library and part “cabinet of curiosities” of the kind that men like Thomas Jefferson created to exhibit paintings, sculpture, mammoth bones, artifacts and other curiosities that reflected their intellectual tastes and served as conversation pieces for their guests. Jim sits in his favorite place — a deep brown chair, ancient and a little exhausted from all that hard reading over the past couple of decades. On Tuesday, we actually got down on the carpet to examine an extremely high-quality facsimile of William Clark’s famous composite map of the American West — a gift from Yale University for one of the hundreds of humanities projects Jim has directed in the course of his career. Jim’s wife, Jean, mostly tries to stay out of the way — “You can imagine that I have heard some of this before,” she says with affectionate irony — and she brings us tea and coffee and sponges our faces in the moments when we return to our corners. I pitch questions over the top of my main video camera and then just sit back to drink in his answers. Ronda is a master of the art of conversation. Every thing he says is rich with reference to a lifetime of deep reading. He’s never arcane or obscure or pompous in the way of some lifetime academics. He just opens his mouth, and a brilliant stream of Idea flows out into the world.

Ronda has read more books than anyone I have ever met, and — more to the point — he has let them percolate through his mind and heart and soul, and inform his character and mature outlook. I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-read person, but the fact is that I am really nothing more than a bush-leaguer, and I find myself furtively jotting down book titles and feeling waves of self-disappointment as I listen to him weave lovely conversational tapestries in every direction — effortlessly, it would seem. He has read what there is to read in American history, in Western Americana, in travel and exploration literature, in American Indian literature, in the biography of the Anglo-American world, but that is not the most impressive thing about him. Without ever trying to show off, without ever becoming oppressive, Ronda speaks of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dr. Johnson, Emerson, Willa Cather, Milton, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway and Twain as if they were his dear friends. Which they are.

The great English critic George Steiner was once asked, “How many books do you think you have read?” To which he replied, archly, “It’s not how many books you have read. It’s how many books you have read twice.”

Jim’s going to pick me up at my motel in 15 minutes. I need to brush my teeth. This morning, we are going to talk about our favorite common book, Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” He’s taught it repeatedly (never with full success) and I’ve taught it many times (never with much success). Once we get warmed up I’m going to ask him what Thoreau meant when he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” Deliberately — there’s the rub. I’m as excited this morning as if I were about see Michael Jordan play for his last championship, or see “Hamlet” in Stratford-upon-Avon, or listen to the Berlin Philharmonic, or meet President Jefferson in his cabinet of curiosities at Monticello.

(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. He can be reached at or through his website,


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