Founded in 1769 as an “Indian charity school,” Dartmouth didn’t quite fulfill its charter promise to “educate and instruct the Indian youth” in its early years. The college graduated only 19 Native people before 1973.
But the white men who were receiving Dartmouth educations in those 200 years held onto that story of the college’s founding, and they mythologized it - in class traditions, the college’s unofficial (and now defunct) Indian mascot, and in a piece of campus artwork the administration is now considering doing away with.
The “Hovey Murals” line the walls of an 800-square-foot room in the basement of the main dining commons.
Based on an old Dartmouth drinking song, they depict Eleazar Wheelock, Dartmouth’s evangelist founder, luring some Indians out of the Northern New England woods for their first taste of alcohol and literature.
By the last panel, it’s clear they’re not equipped to handle either.
The Indian men have drunkenly enrolled at Dartmouth, but their school papers are scattered across the ground. The women are naked, or close to it. One is trying to read an upside-down book.
“For me, what stands out is the depiction of Native peoples as one with the flora and the fauna,” said Bruce Duthu, professor of Native American Studies at the college, during a rare viewing of the murals. “Sort of savage creatures of nature.”
After Dartmouth re-committed to its original mission in the early 70s, Duthu, of the Houma Nation, arrived as part of its first modern cohort of Indigenous students. He says that some of his mostly-white classmates didn’t believe that a Native person could be smart enough to attend an Ivy-League college, and that the Hovey murals reflect that stereotype. That’s part of what makes him so uneasy about them, and what disturbs lots of current Indigenous students.
“This is how we understand Indigeneity,” Duthu said. “Drunk Natives who need to be saved from themselves.”
Once an exclusive dining space where Dartmouth men would eat steak and smoke cigars, the room that houses the murals was cleared out and locked away from public view in the 70s. But their very presence in the dining hall, a space that most students cannot reasonably avoid entering, has been the subject of protest by Native students for decades.
Earlier this year, the Native Americans at Dartmouth student group sent a letter to college president Phil Hanlon asking him to do something about the murals. So, his administration formed a study group to consider whether a locked room in the dining hall basement is the best place for them.
The study group, headed up by Duthu and Juliette Bianco, deputy director of the college’s fine arts museum, has been consulting with college alumni, art historians -- even structural engineers who helped determine whether the 80-year-old paintings would survive being moved.
And they’ve been talking to Native students.
Polimana Joshevama is the president of Native Americans at Dartmouth and one of only a handful of
students on campus who have seen the Hovey Murals in person.
“They should be destroyed,” Joshevama said. “We don’t need this constant reminder of personal and ancestral violences against Indigenous people.”
One of her main concerns is the way Native women are portrayed.
“These murals are a depiction of sexualized savages. Scantily clad Native women who are hypersexualized,” she said.
And that hits home for her. As a little girl, Joshevama recalls memorizing the statistic that one in three Indigenous women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. A 2015 student survey found that half of Native women at Dartmouth had experienced sexual violence during their time there.
For Joshevama, the link between those statistics and the images of Native women in the Hovey murals is obvious.
But some Dartmouth Alumni don’t see it that way. They say that the Hovey Murals aren’t meant to be a factual depiction of the college’s founding or of Indigenous life. They’re a work of art.
In a blog post just after the study group was announced, Joe Asch, Dartmouth class of 1979, asked: "Isn’t art about free expression? And shouldn’t the man who painted the Hovey Murals be allowed to depict his take on the world? If your answer is ‘no,’ then you support censorship in all its forms. Don’t deny it,” Asch wrote.
As they await the study group’s recommendation, Native students say they are aware of possible backlash from alumni who feel attached to the murals.
Arviso Alvord, a junior and a citizen of the Navajo Nation, fears that Native students might not be safe on campus if the group recommends the murals’ destruction.
“I worry about something like Charlottesville,” Alvord said. “You know, when white people feel like their celebrations are threatened, things can get really crazy and crazier than anybody expected things could get.”
For that reason, Alvord hopes that the murals aren’t destroyed, just moved to storage so that the space can be put to use and so that Native students can feel comfortable eating in the main dining hall.
Duthu says that both destroying the murals and moving them are on the table. So is leaving them right where they are.
Whatever the study group recommends, when the college announces its final decision in September, that will be the first time many Dartmouth students learn that the long-hidden murals exist.
Meanwhile, Joshevama thinks about them just about every time she eats a meal.
Standing in front of the heavy wooden doors that keep the murals hidden, she brainstormed productive uses for the space that’s been locked and empty for decades. It could be a community space for the college’s Native American program, or an exhibit on the college’s true Indigenous history.
“Here we have an unused room that could hold quite a few people,” she said. “And instead, it’s filled with racist images.”