Daniela Sheinin: How do past voices resonate in the present moment? And how do we make sense of those voices? What were they trying to say and whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.
Daniela Sheinin: One of the challenges for historians, is figuring out how to start a story. Usually it starts when you find something interesting, something particularly curious. It could be something that excites you or something that confuses you. It could be something you find familiar, something that reminds you of an old friend or family member. Or, it could be something completely foreign, something you know absolutely nothing about but for some reason want to know more. It often happens while leafing through documents in a library or archive. It could happen when looking through your grandfather’s old photographs. It could be something as simple as looking at a newspaper and thinking, this doesn’t seem quite right. There is always a starting point from which you might work backwards or forwards, tracking what happened, or did not happen in the past. Sometimes it’s an entire box of government reports, an entire scrapbook of old photographs and newspapers. Sometimes, it’s a single sketch with no name.
Welcome to episode 4 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Daniela Sheinin. In this episode, you’ll hear of a surprising and unanticipated discovery. Matt Villeneuve is a PhD candidate in the Department of History. His dissertation, “The Indigenous in Intelligence: John Dewey, American Indian Education and The Progressive Campaign for Democracy Through Schooling, 1880 to 1930,” combines two topics close to Matt’s heart, Native American history and the philosophy of education. Matt’s tale from the archive is a moment of archive magic, the pull of curiosity that launches a historical inquiry and the rare reward of discovery that comes from making surprising connections across time. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the people you find in the archive can talk back.
Matt Villeneuve: Let me tell you about the moment it happened to me. That’s special moment that historians feel that I like to call archive magic. Archive magic is the moment when after growing numb from hours of scouring old papers, flipping through ancient manuscripts or winding microfilm until you’re nauseous, you finally stumble across a piece of information that practically leaps off the page. Sometimes it’s exactly the kind of information that will serve as strong evidence for your argument, a singular gem just waiting to be polished. But more often than not, archive magic is less like finding a buried treasure and is more akin to discovering a trail head, a dangling thread that begs to be pulled. In other words, archive magic is the discovery of a clue.
For me, the archive magic that begins this story happened about a month or two ago. I was searching the digitized personal correspondence of the American philosopher, John Dewey. Dewey, not to be confused with Melvil Dewey of Dewey decimal fame, was arguably America’s leading public intellectual during the early twentieth century. Dewey lived from 1859 to 1952 so he saw a lot of American history and much of it is captured in his personal correspondence. Rifling through this enormous haystack of four volumes of letters for a small needle, I was searching his papers for any and all references to one topic in particular. Any connection no matter how tenuous between Dewey and American Indian people. Let me give you a little backstory. My father is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation in North Dakota and this heritage informs a large part of my scholarship and I’m interested broadly in the history of how schools have been used as a mechanism for the federal government to target American Indian children.
Particularly around the turn of the twentieth century, a national system of schools was created by the government for Indian children that was intended to affect the cultural erasure of indigenous lifeways. That process, disturbing as it is, has always fascinated me. How does one go about turning a school room into an extension of state policy and in this case, as a kind of weapon of cultural destruction? As a result, one of the people that I’ve become really interested in, is John Dewey, whose philosophy imagines using schools as vehicles to bring people together through a communal process of learning and growing to build social solidarities across diverse communities. This function of schools, Dewey thought, was what made them the quintessential motor of democracy in American life. Making one people out of many. But this was at the exact same time that the federal government operated a sprawling system of off reservation boarding schools for indigenous people intended to do the exact opposite. How could these two school systems, one pluralistic, the other destructive exist side by side? And what could explain Dewey’s oversight of indigenous schooling in his philosophy of education and democracy?
Armed with this question, I headed into my first archive to try and find some answers. This is how I came to find a 1969 letter from a man named Edward Gottlieb that he had sent to Dewey’s widow, Roberta Dewey. Whomever had digitized the letter, had left a note saying, “in closing cover page of center forum, July, 1969 illustrated by *Eleanor McGid*, drawing of American Indian wearing placard bearing message: John Dewey, where are you now that we need to be relevant.” An illustration that imagined an American Indian person chastising Dewey? It was perfect, but there was a problem. These were digitized letters, so there were no other materials in the volume. Materials that might have otherwise been tucked inside the same folder if I were sitting in an archival reading room. So how can I find this illustration? I knew that if I could find the article that it was accompanying, I could find it.
So I searched in the Michigan library catalog for the article, but my search produced no hits. I’d hit a roadblock. Fortunately, historians have specially equipped demolition experts to help us clear such obstacles and they’re called academic librarians. I got in touch with a friend of mine named James, who works as an academic librarian at Eastern Washington University back home. I explained the situation, gave him all the info I had, and set him loose. Finally, James reported back that this had been a particularly thorny challenge and that he had actually been unable to find the article. I was feeling pretty defeated. If an expert librarian couldn’t find it, it felt good as lost. But James told me in an almost mischievous way that he had a lead and he’d let me know if it panned out. He was almost energized by the obscurity of the source and sure enough, the next day a document was sitting in my inbox and low and behold there was the illustration by Eleanor Magid.
It was everything I had hoped for and more. Magid’s drawing depicts two protestors seemingly walking at a demonstration. One is a mustachioed man with a broad hat clad in a poncho and a girl in buckskin moccasins and braids sporting a feather in a headband. The two coded as indigenous people from the Southwest and plains respectively, are wearing sandwich boards as if engaged in the act of picketing. Their signs speak volumes. The girl in buckskin bears a sign imploring “Americanize America” while her comrades sports a sign that is as bold as it is specific, “John Dewey, where are you now that we need to be relevant?” This was an awesome find. It was almost as if someone had anticipated my research question and had made this drawing just for me like a commission. I began looking for reference to Dewey and American Indians and now I had a new question. One I could never have anticipated. Who was this artist, Eleanor Magid?
With this new research path, I set out to cast the largest net I could, so I did a Google search or two and after some digging I found reference to a New York printmaker by the same name but little else. Serendipitously, I came across a Huffington Post article celebrating a holiday I did not know existed: Grandparent’s Day, which for those of you keeping score at home is September 8th. The author had solicited submissions from people celebrating their grandparents and a woman named Amity submitted the following. My grandma, Eleanor Magid is an artist, photographer and graphic designer. My grandma is also something of a tech wiz and good thing too; she knows how to maneuver social media as well as anyone my age. Could I possibly find Eleanor on social media? Well, I logged into Facebook and found myself laughing. What kind of wave of archival magic could I ride this long? With a little finagling, I managed to find a profile that I thought might belong to Eleanor.
Her profile looked rather inactive compared to a person my age and I figured this was not a place she regularly visited. Would any message I send her simply languish in obscurity? There was only one way to find out. So imagine my surprise. Eleanor had received my message and I sent her a copy of the illustration in question. Well she was delighted to see it, and I asked if she might be willing to talk with me about it on the phone. One last leg to cover on a journey that began with a digitized letter from 1969 which had led to an arcane academic repository then to a Huffington Post article from two years ago and now to Facebook. She cordially agreed and so I called her.
Eleanor Magid: Good morning, Matt.
Matt Villeneuve: Hi Eleanor, this is Matt. It’s so great to finally talk to you.
Eleanor Magid: Exactly. It’s been quite, we’ve been emailing for quite a while now.
Matt Villeneuve: We have, we have a pretty good correspondence going. I’m very proud of us.
Meet my new friend, Eleanor, born in 193–she’s 85 years young and we talked for two hours on the phone and I got to ask her all kinds of questions. I started at the beginning with her biography.
Eleanor Magid: Uh, well I was born in Tiffin, Ohio. Uh, my father was a ceramic engineer and they moved to Tiffin because it was a ceramics town. But I do remember how I started drawing. My father had a drafting table and he sat me down very young, four or five, um, to learn how to use the T square and the triangle. So I was started drawing, making straight lines, vertical and horizontal, and then using a triangle and making diagonal lines. And then we lived in an Oak wood and I started going outdoors with my drawing paper and began to look at curves, the plants near the ground and the trees and the little animals and so on. And so it was a very early start.
Matt Villeneuve: I asked Eleanor why she thought she began making art as a child and she reflected on this for a moment and settled on two answers. The first was pretty practical for a kid.
Eleanor Magid: Before I started school, I didn’t have playmates and I began to draw. I think for that reason it was my connection of a different kind of connection to the world.
Matt Villeneuve: But that connection grew over time. Eleanor was drawn literally to a methodology of being in the world that was implicit in sketching. And she explained to me with the insight of an art teacher of over 30 years, how one’s medium shapes the way one views the world.
Eleanor Magid: Sure. You know, each medium has its own particular quality. To open up the mind, like photography, you have to see very fast in a flash. It was doing, it slows you down and practically nothing else makes you stop and look so long. Uh, so it’s long, slow, careful looking. And this is a drawing and the sciences grew up together and their long, careful, slow looking at plants and their anatomy and structure.
Matt Villeneuve: It became clear listening to Eleanor that art was a calling. After attending a Quaker school, Eleanor went to Smith College, but there she was under-stimulated, eager to press on to a more contemporary art scene. She ventured to New York City in the early 1950s but there too, she realized that her observational sketching method was out of sync with the prevailing artistic currents.
Eleanor Magid: It was the era of abstract expressionism and action painting, which interested me, but it was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to look at the world and record it. I always felt that there was a tension between what artists did and what people did who were trying to make the world better. I liked the idea of artists serving a wide audience than the art market serves. The art market is a fairly narrow territory.
Matt Villeneuve: More interested in praxis than profit, Eleanor became involved in printmaking, eventually moved to the lower East side and opened a print shop. There she started a family and became a member of the neighborhood, eventually coming to teach art at Queens College. But in 1968 there was a teacher strike that shut down the school system and as a parent and educator, Eleanor became involved in the movement. It was this circumstance that she produced the illustration that had brought me to her.
Eleanor Magid: At all these community meetings that we were going to, I was drawing. I was, that’s what I do. You know, I was drawing figures, started out with community drawings from around here, mothers and children sitting around a meeting and trying to figure out what we could do about the strike. We had a lot of marches and things around here, so it may have been a drawing from marches, but I cannot remember, um, whether that drawing was from direct observation or from finding a photograph. That costume that she’s wearing or her clothing, uh, may have been something demonstration, we had lots of demonstrations.
Matt Villeneuve: This is what I had come to hear. Provenance. The circumstances surrounding the creation of the primary source, Eleanor’s recollection from 1968 was a good lead considering her observational method and the nature of the teacher strike it was entirely feasible than indigenous people were involved in the protest. Yet the final task of interpreting the illustrations editorializing for John Dewey came down to my judgment as a historian. Still, I asked Eleanor for a little help.
Eleanor Magid: Yes, well that was the idea, but is that, is that the educational system has taken into account actually Western European systems and nothing else and we’re so much bigger and broader than that.
Matt Villeneuve: Eleanor felt that indigenous people calling for Dewey’s pluralism in education was a way to emphasize the epistemological monopoly that had its grip on schooling to the detriment of democracy.
Eleanor Magid: I mean, all children face it one way or another. Every single child faces these kinds of provincialism or my ways the only way so good. You’re lesser than I am with all of that.
Matt Villeneuve: So there you have it. My tale from the archive, that began in a digitized letter and ended with a phone call. I told Eleanor how much of a rare treat it was to go into an archive where all the material appears still, lifeless, and inert and then to find some archive magic that led to an actual living, breathing person. She seemed just as pleased.
Eleanor Magid: Well, I’m so happy that you and I have met because it seems to me that our, our visions are very close. Really.
Matt Villeneuve: In the end, I got lucky. Sometimes these people from the past are still around today and keep their stories alive.
Daniela Sheinin: Thank you so much for joining us. And a special thank you to our segment producer for the episode, Matt Villeneuve. Our Editorial Board is Professor Melanie Tanielian and Matt Villeneuve, and our Production Team is Executive Producer Gregory Parker, and I’m your Season Producer, Daniela Sheinin. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode for more stories on how the past reverberates in present. This is Reverb Effect.