Calloway Disappointing on Ledger Art


“Mountain Chief, Blackfeet War Leader,” an example of Native American ledger art currently on display at the Hood Museum. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Mehling ’68)By Adam I.W. Schwartzman

Colin Calloway led the Friday, October 22 lecture, “The Mission of Eleazar Wheelock, the Vision of Luther Standing Bear, and Why Ledger Art Matters to Dartmouth College.” 

Calloway, the John Kimball Jr. 1943 Professor of Native American Studies and director of the Leslie Center for the Humanities Institute, began by naming the flaws, in his mind, of the College’s founding. “It is important to remember what education meant to Eleazar Wheelock and what education meant to the Indian tribes,” he said, proceeding to detail a history of the early days of the College, explaining that the English in America were solely focused on the spread of Christian ways and were largely uninterested in learning the ways of the natives. However, the Professor did manage a caveat, allowing that “given the context of the time, we can be persuaded that [Wheelock] was fairly forward thinking.”

 

Professor Colin Calloway is a 2004 winner of the Merle Curti Award for his book, “One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark”As the talk went on, Calloway continued his commentary on Dartmouth and the lecture became one of tangents. Although many of these anecdotes were interesting, such as the mention of Ralph Walkingstick ’18, inventor of one variant of the Indian yell at football games, they detracted from the intended topic of discussion.

The Professor did show several examples of ledger art, narrative pieces by Plains Indians made primarily around the turn of the 19th century, but fell short in his discourse on the works. Rather than look at the pieces through an analytical lens, Calloway merely explained the events taking place in the drawings, revealing perhaps more of a personal fascination than sufficient fodder for a lecture. 

At one point Professor Calloway allowed that some saw the ledger art as sub-par and uninteresting, a moment at which I expected him to discredit this point and reveal the true genius of the pieces, or at least explain why one’s interest should be piqued. Instead, Calloway merely disagreed with this sentiment, choosing not to back up his view with any line of reasoning, and again detracting from the quality of the content to solely reflect seemingly intangible personal interest.

Indeed a perusal of the Mark Lansburgh Collection of ledger art at the Hood revealed that the pieces, which are in fact mostly colored pencil drawings on lined ledger paper, are much more interesting for their historical implications than their artistic content. For example, an untitled picture by one “Chief Killer” depicts a score or so of Indians imprisoned in Fort Marion, being taught by English women. The drawing is not noteworthy for its artistic merit, rather for its depiction of natives all dressed in the same uniforms with blank faces and the exact same short haircut, revealing the anger felt by Chief Killer at the forced Europeanization of the Indians. Likewise the numerous other pieces in the Hood exhibit certainly show interesting and personal reflections of the Plains Indians, especially considering that most of the pieces are autobiographical, however Professor Calloway’s lecture failed to stress this point enough, preferring to baselessly insist that the works were just as intriguing for their artistic aspects as for their historical content.

By the end of the talk, the Professor came full circle to his original point: the guilt we should all feel for the neglect of Native American wisdom. He remarked that Eleazar Wheelock “tried to hammer the Indian out of Indian students,” proceeding to remind the audience that it is not too late to transform Dartmouth into an institution that combines modern and Native American education in order to “create a truly American school.” 

While the sentiment that the Native American Studies at Dartmouth are useful and important to our school is not radical, and certainly the Professor cannot be faulted for a vested interest in their prominence, the conclusion of his lecture seemed to rather insinuate a desire for the overhaul of the College’s firmly established educational system to reflect an equal commitment to both our traditional instruction and Native American education, apparently neglecting to consider the implications of altering a several century old institution of higher learning to center its curriculum around an outmoded and, at this point certainly incomplete, set of guidelines. 

At the lecture’s conclusion, Professor Calloway opened up for questions from the audience, of which there were none. After a few seconds of silence, the Professor managed to eek a question or two out of a few members of the audience, but the majority remained silent. Not even former President James Wright, who was spotted in the crowd, had a comment on the hour of misguided sentimentality that everyone in Loew Theater had just experienced.