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Kidwell, Clara Sue (1941–) - Native American History, History of Science

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Clara Sue Kidwell, historian of science, of Native American cultural practices, and of Native American women, was born on July 8, 1941, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, of Choctaw/Chippewa/French/English/Scotch-Irish ancestry. Her parents, Hardin Milton Kidwell and Martha Evelyn St. Clair, were both clerks with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Clara Sue grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, raised by her grandmother, Susie Kidwell, while her parents worked. Kidwell graduated from Central High School in 1959, then attended the University of Oklahoma at Norman, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1963, a master’s degree in 1966, and a Ph.D. in 1970.

Kidwell remembers three early influences on her life. Her grandmother counseled her, “If you want something done right, don’t depend on other people to do it for you.” Her mother, who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for thirty-one years, told her to “make a carbon copy of everything.” And Gladys Nunn, Clara’s high school teacher, in emphasizing that quotation marks at the beginning of a quote are right side up commas, and those at the end are upside down commas, taught Clara attention to details.

Kidwell attributes her early interest in history to her grandmother, who, she says, “took the Reader’s Digest religiously.” From the Digest , Kidwell learned an impressive amount of trivial information, which she used to qualify for the College Bowl Team at the University of Oklahoma. Two historians of science happened to be on the selection committee for the team, and they offered her a fellowship in the history of science when she finished her bachelor’s degree. She continued her studies in the history of science through the doctorate.

Kidwell’s first teaching job was at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, her parents’ alma mater. After two-year stays at Haskell and then at the University of Minnesota, Kidwell accepted a position as associate professor in the Native American studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. She left Berkeley in 1993 to serve as the assistant director for cultural resources at the National Museum of the American Indian, where she tried to “infuse a sense of history” into the planning of exhibits for the current facility in New York and the new facility in Washington, D.C., which is scheduled to open in 2001. In 1995 Kidwell became director of the Native American studies program and tenured professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, where she plans to pursue her interest in the history of the Choctaws in Mississippi.

The recipient of numerous fellowships, including those from the Rockefeller Foundation, Newberry Library, and the Smithsonian Institution, Kidwell has produced two books and many articles on American Indian technologies, women in Native American cultures, Choctaw land claims in Mississippi, and educational issues for Native Americans. Her most recent works include her book Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918 and “Choctaw Women and Cultural Persistence in Mississippi,” in Nancy Shoemaker’s edited collection, Keepers of Tradition, Advocates of Change: Historical Perspectives on Women and Gender in Native American Societies (New York: Routledge, 1994). Her article “Systems of Knowledge,” summarizing the complexities of Native American science in comparison to European scientific thought and practice during the era of Columbus, is included in Alvin M. Josephy’s edited collection, America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus , a collection reviewer Michael D. Green claims probably comes closer than any other to being the “official” history of the period.

Kidwell’s professional responsibilities have included serving as director of Berkeley’s Consortium for Graduate Opportunities for American Indians and as director of two National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes for College Teachers: “Great Traditions in American Indian Thought” and “Myth, Memory and History: Alternative Sources for Writing American Indian History.” In 1995 Kidwell also accepted the role of contributing editor for the Museums and Interpretive Programs column in the newsletter of the American Historical Association.

Clara Sue Kidwell has a brother and sister, and her parents, both in good health, are “happy as bed bugs,” according to Kidwell’s mother. Kidwell also has two cats, Betsy and Bertrand Russell. Her hobbies include gardening and cooking, especially with Hugo, the sourdough starter Kidwell has been nurturing and using for seven years.

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