|Photo credit: South Dakota Magazine|
Born in the small town of Wabasha, Minnesota at the start of the Great Depression, Hoover eventually used the G.I. Bill to begin his academic pursuits. He often cited the notable historian John Baptist Wolf at the University of Minnesota as his greatest influence but was always quick to express gratitude to all historians who helped him navigate a career that “beats working,” as Hoover liked to say.
“I was only using the best that I learned from those models. I think there has to be something behind you like that,” he said in 2007. “You must have learned from some of the very best.”
After receiving his Ph.D. in history at the University of Oklahoma, Hoover taught and researched for a time in Texas, where he claimed he learned to do state history. He developed his philosophy that regional and thematic considerations are more important to state history than strict adherence to geographic borders.
Hoover came to USD in 1967 to help fill the seemingly unfillable void then being left by historian Herbert Schell, who had served more than forty years in higher education and – among other accomplishments – had written what was at that time considered the definitive history of South Dakota (History of South Dakota, 1962). Shortly after arriving at USD, Hoover came to chair a committee on the operations of the newly-created South Dakota Oral History Center (SDOHC). Over the coming decades, he and fellow USD historian Joseph Cash formed one of the most important partnerships in the academic history of South Dakota. Together, they led the effort to collect the bulk of resources at the SDOHC, which now houses more than 6,500 oral histories and recordings, making it one of the largest oral history collections in the United States.
By 1970, Hoover and Cash had secured funding from the South Dakota state legislature to collect oral histories from every county in the state. By 1971, they published To Be an Indian, an anthology of fifty-two oral history excerpts. Donald Fixico, the prominent Native American historian and recent president of the Western History Association, recognized To Be an Indian as one of the most important and groundbreaking collections of Native American oral histories ever published, particularly with regard to the subject of Native American identity.
Drawing upon his family heritage and intellectual ability, Hoover in his classes and numerous publications was able to show balanced insights into the relationships between Dakota, Lakota, and non-Native American groups in the region. His sharp sense of humor is evident in many of his writings, as well as the more than half-dozen recordings (from 1972 to 2007) for which he agreed to be interviewed for the SDOHC. South Dakota Leaders, which Hoover published in 1989 as an editor with Larry J. Zimmerman, became one of the first studies of general South Dakota history to gain widespread acclaim under peer review.
As he entered his twilight years as a historian, Hoover became a leading advocate for a new comprehensive state history of South Dakota. As part of a landmark collaboration with more than a dozen scholars from around the region in the early 2000s, Hoover worked tirelessly for the project. The result was a magnum opus, A New History of South Dakota (first printed in 2005), for which he wrote the introduction and served as a primary contributor.
After the project, Hoover continued on in a professor emeritus role in the USD History Department for many years. Reflecting upon his half century of work with the university, Hoover called it “the ideal job.”
“It couldn’t have been any better for me,” he said.
It could not have been any better for USD, as well. Like the great historians who influenced him, Hoover will continue to stand as a model for students and scholars who come through the university. His lectures and publications will become all the more important in the coming decades, as concepts of identity continue to be crucial to Native American individuals and communities in the twenty-first century, and also as stories of all South Dakotans continue to unfold.
An oral history interview with Herbert T. Hoover from 2007 is available on the Digital Library of South Dakota.