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Doing Justice to the Classics

Degrading Murals “Civilize” Native Americans with Latin Textbook

In the fall of 2018 Dartmouth College decided to remove from campus a set of murals depicting Eleazer Wheelock meeting the Native Americans living in New Hampshire, where he founded the college in 1769. The murals have drawn protests since the 1970s for their racist depiction of Native Americans and the room in which they were displayed — a dining room for faculty — was closed in 1979. Since then the murals have been accessible only by special arrangement but were still located in a central location on campus that implicitly endorsed their representation of Native Americans as unsophisticated people who need to be “civilized.” The murals explicitly make Classical education part of this “civilizing” project.

One of several panels showing Wheelock drinking with Native American men

The murals are known as the “Hovey Murals” after the name of the author of a 19th century drinking song that inspired them. The song tells how Wheelock “went into the wilderness to teach the Indian.” These would have been the Abenaki people, but the song describes their “big chief” as “the sachem of the Wah-hoo-wahs,” and the murals employ only stereotypical portrayals of the men and women Wheelock encountered. The song continues, “Eleazer was the faculty and the whole curriculum was five-hundred gallons of New England rum.” The murals accordingly show Wheelock and several caricatured Native American men drinking heavily. The women, likewise, are sexualized by being portrayed half-naked. Announcing their removal, Dartmouth’s president rightly called the mural’s depiction of these scenes “derogatory” and “disturbing”: Native American women are more than twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the United States and alcohol has devastated Native communities.

Both the murals and the lyrics of the song sexualize Native American women: the “chief” of the song “had tobacco by the cord, ten squaws and more to come.”

Less obvious is the way Classical education underpins this representation. The lyrics of the drinking song, which appear in the murals, say that Wheelock brought with him “a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a drum, and five hundred gallons of New England rum.” The Gradus ad Parnassum was a Latin textbook first published in 1850 and still very useful for its comprehensive thesaurus of the Latin language. It appears in several of the murals: in one, Wheelock drunkenly spills rum onto a copy while a Native American man sneaks between Wheelock’s legs to refill his cup; in another, a Native American woman is shown trying to read it but holding it upside down. Her inability to read the Gradus is intended to signal her lack of education.

Detail of one of the Hovey Murals: Native American Woman holding the “Gradus ad Parnassum” upside down

The murals invoke Classical antiquity in other ways. One mural bears a Latin inscription, Collegium Dartmuthense in aqua vitae conditum, “Dartmouth College, founded in the water of life.” Aqua vitae, “water of life,” is a Latin expression for alcoholic drinks such as the rum Wheelock supposedly brought with him. Additionally, the names of several academic departments are inscribed on the columns separating the panels of the murals, including “Fine Arts,” “Music,” and “Political Science”: the very first column, the one that frames the first panel of the mural and that stands next to the first words of the drinking song, is marked “Department of Classics.” This is a reminder of the special place Classical education had in higher education at that time: it was symbolic of the entire mission of the school. Those who have defended the murals have also made recourse to Greco-Roman antiquity: a book with an essay that describes the murals as “a metaphor for the ideals of Dartmouth manhood” attempts to legitimize their portrayal of Native Americans by claiming that the composition was inspired by Renaissance art on classical themes such as The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche and The Triumph of Bacchus. The implication is that a work of art that has such models deserves admiration.

Classical education played a role in how Native American children were forced to give up their identities, languages, and cultures in the name of assimilation

The drunken behavior of Wheelock and irreverent treatment of education in the murals should not be allowed to disguise their implied message about education, and Classical education in general. The presence of the titles of academic departments framing the scenes, and its location in an area reserved for the college’s faculty, assume the dignity and value of that education. The caricatures of Native people as uneducated and slaves to their appetites may have provoked laughter at one time but at the same time serves as a justification for that education as a desirable, “civilizing” force. This idea is not just an artifact of the early 20th century. When contemporary white supremacists talk about the  need to preserve “Western Civilization” by teaching ancient history and languages in a certain way, they have in mind this kind of model of what a Classical education is for.

This is an especially sinister message in the case of Native Americans, given the way their children were taken from their families to be enrolled in “Indian Schools” where they were forced to give up their identities, languages, and cultures in the name of “assimilation” and civilization. Classical education played a role in that dark chapter of US history. Wheelock himself made Greek and Latin subjects at “Moor’s Charity School,” his school before he founded Dartmouth College. The most notorious of these schools, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, whose founder’s motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” had books on Roman and Greek history in its library. Many children died in the harsh conditions of these schools. In the background of this institutionalized attempt to eradicate Native culture and identity is the stereotype of the “Noble Savage,” which originally served to prevent European colonists from recognizing their shared humanity with Native peoples but which later became a justification for scientific racism. This stereotype itself is informed by classical models.

Orozco: “Cortés and the Cross”; the panel to the right, “The Machine,” is fed by the bodies below Cortés’ left hand

Many of the harmful stereotypes of Native Americans that persist to this day have their origin in imperialist policies that sought to displace Native peoples from their land in order to make way for white settlers. Dartmouth’s own history is one of displacement: despite the song’s claim that the college was founded for Indians, only 19 graduated in the first 200 years of the college’s history. Even though the murals themselves were painted a century after the Indian Removal Act, they are in a sense a product of that racist history: they were conceived originally as a response to another set of murals at Darmouth, José Clemente Orozco’s Epic of American Civilization. These monumental murals, which were designated a National Historic Landmark in 2013, provoked controversy when completed in 1934 for their unflattering portrayal of the legacy of European colonization in the Americas. They dramatize the violence of the imposition of European culture on Native peoples and the consequences of industrialization; machines are shown being fed with corpses of those killed by Cortés, for example. The Hovey murals, which the college’s alumni magazine hailed at the time as “a real Dartmouth mural” and “appropriate to the [college’s] masculine atmosphere,” were completed a few years later. This history alone shows that the supposed humor of the murals is a mask for an attempt to reassert a particular version of the college’s, and American, history in response to the critical reassessment of that history enacted by Orozco’s work.

What is the best way to grapple with a past we find repugnant?

The decision about what to do with the Hovey murals was undoubtedly a difficult one. Some critics had called for their destruction; many saw a need to preserve the murals as a resource for grappling critically with the college’s history. A Native American student at the college, writing at a time when the murals were still located on campus but only accessible in connection with courses studying them, argued that this arrangement allowed many students to remain ignorant about the college’s history because they never learned the murals even existed. We at Pharos struggle with a similar set of problems with the classical past. Is our site an argument that the classical past is too corrupted by its historical and current association with white supremacy and other forms of hatred to continue as a worthy object of study (as has been powerfully argued), or is there a way to reimagine the discipline and indeed, the classical past itself, that makes it contribute to a liberatory and inclusive politics? Should it be destroyed or moved “off-campus” (whatever that might-mean)? What is the best way to grapple with a past we find repugnant? It is, in some ways, the fundamental question of this site.

What is clear about Classics and the Hovey Murals is that neither can be left where they are. It is useful to return to the two iconic sets of murals discussed above, whose fates have diverged with the removal of one set from campus. Both the Orozco and Hovey murals have been controversial; why should one be celebrated and displayed for all to see in the center of Dartmouth’s campus while the other can only be accessed by special arrangement in an off-campus storage facility? Cries of “censorship” and “political correctness” are disingenuous. We do better to look at the parallel of the recent removal of Confederate monuments (the classical dimension of which Pharos and others have documented). For some they are a symbol of history that should not be forgotten but ultimately they celebrate the institution of slavery and the racist foundations of our nation and so should not be honored with prominent placement in our communities. It’s the same with these murals. It is not a question of artistic quality or historic significance, its a question of how we apportion honor and respect. The Hovey murals assert a false and hateful vision of our history and the Orozco murals confront the violence of that history. One deserves to be honored, the other doesn’t.

Learn more about the Orozco murals from this brochure published by Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art.

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