I Am an Independent Blind Historian

By Alida Boorn, PhD

Although I have been blind for two decades, I am new to academic Disability Studies.  For a number of years my primary area of interest has been North American Indigenous peoples studies.  My main areas of focus are Show Indian culture and transnational material culture.  I was introduced to Disability Studies by Dr. Miguel Juarez when he approached me to participate on a Panel at the October 2018 Western History Association Conference to be held in San Antonio, Texas. Our panel will research and present papers focused on Ageism, Ableism, and Advocacy. Dr. Miguel Juarez from the University of Texas at El Paso will serve as our Chairman; Dr. Robin Henry from Wichita State University will serve as our diversity expert; and Dr. Bonnie Lynn-Sherow from Kansas State University will serve as our Commentator.  I will offer my insight of what I can contribute to the history profession as a blind senior citizen just entering the field.

As research for my Western History Association paper I posted a call on H-West and H-Disability for blind historians to contact me to share their experiences.  I received four contacts.  These informants have been very helpful. How people approach disability in their education and career pursuits reflects commonalities, as well as unique individual strategies for navigating the world.  It is important to emphasize that there is a broad spectrum of different levels of visual acuity.  For example; being legally blind does not necessarily mean that a person cannot see light, friends faces, or large font print.  People with low vision can see color or a world that resembles a Monet painting. Then, there are blind persons as myself who have no sense of sight. Blind and low visioned people rely heavily on listening skills to navigate the outer world. Tactile skills provide reading using braille and examining art in museums, such as looking at sculpture with one’s hands. It is wonderful to note that museums now provide technological devices and cell phone aps that deliver audio tours of exhibition spaces.  When I was a young low visioned person this technology was not readily available in the museums that I love so much.

Ageism, ableism, and advocacy in the history profession is a relevant subject that deserves continuing and fresh attention to learn from diverse History communities. I bring to this discussion the perspective interpretation of a blind woman who pursued her PhD in history after completing the first half of her lifecycle.  I argue that the History profession will always need historians from all ages and periods of careers that include a late in life encore career as a choice to begin a new career as a professional historian.  In addition, there is room for a myriad of new historians with audio, visual, and physical challenges.  The history profession needs to push out a larger welcome mat to widen the scope of teaching and research in the history and museum professions.  I compliment the Western History Association (WHA) for encouraging and supporting budding and continuing historians. In this paper and panel, I hope to showcase what more can be accomplished in the History Profession populated with all ages and varying types of abled persons. I fought a battle with glaucoma for decades that I lost.  I began and completed my PhD as a totally blind person.  Not only faced with that challenge, I was sixty-four years old when I completed my PhD.  Having the desire to be a historian and being allergic to people who told me “no” I tarried on.  I was truly fortunate that Kansas State University took a chance on admitting me into their brilliant Graduate History Program.

I utilize adaptive technology to work.  For example; I read and write on my lap-top computer using an audio program called JAWS.

JAWS software

I also read much of the multitude of historiography books that have been converted into audio form on my Victor Stream.  My Victor Stream also has adaptive technology so that I can study foreign languages via audio lessons.  Because I must rely on my hearing to learn, I rely on people, such as my husband to describe visual culture in archives and museums.  Certainly museums are now having more sensitivity to the blind and low visioned visitors and, thus, provide audio tour devices, braille pamphlets, and large type exhibit literature.

Victor Stream Reader, photograph by James Boorn
Victor Stream Reader, photograph by James Boorn

When I wrote my dissertation I discussed that Native American material culture is not and has never been static is not a new conclusion. Other Plains Indian material culture historians have also come to this conclusion.  What makes this work’s thesis new is how I supported the agreed upon thesis of the adaptive methodology of Indian and non-Indian people sharing and repurposing the same material culture.  I demonstrated the interconnections of Canadian, United States, and North American Great Plains Indigenous peoples’ histories by connecting material culture to politics, museum collectors, and tribal archives.  This work is a broad cultural study.  I examined the project from the perspective as a blind person.  I researched the material culture by employing audio description provided by computer generated audio reading of written text. Because I cannot physically see archival materials and other images I relied heavily on secondary sources, predominantly museum exhibition catalogs. I treated the catalogs as archives.  The catalogs contain a fountain of knowledge provided by essays written by academic experts.  I relied on memory of images, from when I once had eyesight, to describe the material culture examined in this narrative.  For example, I remember the essence of color.  I know that black can represent darkness, white can represent light, red can represent blood and life, yellow can represent warmth, blue can represent water, and green can represent grass. My support conclusions come from an academic interpretation that has not been attempted by others in the study of Indigenous material culture.  I concluded transnational changes in American Indian and Euroamerican material cultures are interdependent on politics, global events, and elastic adaptation.  Additionally, for the sighted readers, I have included images of many topics that I discuss, to include native and non-native works.

My unique method of interpreting this fascinating spectrum of material culture is based on listening, touching, and learning from others who have learned about the fact that blind people can actually understand visual constructs in art.  Both the sighted and blind persons possess the ability to know the material world through tactile perception.  For example, perception Psychologist John M. Kennedy determined that “If many properties are perceived by both touch and vision, then it is reasonable to conjecture that the tactile and visual perceptual systems share many of the same operating principles for perceiving the shape of our surroundings.”    Kennedy further pointed out that, “A table is both a visual table and a tactile table. And, if we share the same domain and are interested in the same properties—if touch and vision often use the same tactics in analyzing the world—then is it not possible that sighted and blind people can process depictions the same way?”  Because blind persons can understand the world of tactile perception, they, therefore, can understand enhanced understanding from sighted persons who provide audio descriptions of material culture and visual art. That is the reason that secondary sources such as museum exhibition catalogs were so important to the research for my dissertation.¹

Artist and art historian Judith Ostrowitz succinctly explained how influential North American Indigenous art became in the 19thCentury when “influential scholars” became interested in the Indigenous interpretations.  Because these images have been studied and described by scholars, the blind as myself, can understand the images and learn how to appreciate the colors and paints used in the creation of these works.  Ostrowitz said that, ”Volumes were written by anthropologists, collectors, and others who sought to know the nature and meaning of objects that originated in Native cultures, in what they considered a systematic and scientific way, and ultimately to share that knowledge with larger audiences, particularly in museum environments.”²

How to describe the difference between Indian art and artifact is not a simple visual determination.  It helps to understand if the piece is art if the creator can provide an oral description for the viewing audience, who might also have blind people wanting descriptions from audio text and/or tactile access, if possible.

A fine example of transnational sharing of artistic style can be seen in the 1833 painting by Mandan artist Mató-Tópe (Four Bears). Anthropologist John Canfield Ewers noted that the Mandan artist Four Bears and others studied Catlin at work drawing and painting over four hundred pictures of the Mandan people, village lifeways, and regional landscapes.³ Ewers noted that he saw distinct changes in Four Bears’ pictogram painting style.  Ewers described the changes he saw as the artist moving to a more realistic biographic style. He said that “Gone were the knoblike heads, figures, the crude proportions, the lack of detail. Heads were now painted in profile, the features sharply defined. Great care was taken in drawing a realistic human eye. The arms, legs, and bodies were well proportioned, and the details of headgear, ornaments, and body costume, and the moccasinned feet were delineated with painstaking care. Even though the colors of the original drawing are not known, some attempt at color modeling is suggested on the face and upper body of the warrior [on the painting].”

 Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Battle with a Cheyenne Chief, 1833, watercolor and pencil on paper, Joslyn Art Museum, 1986.49.384

Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Battle with a Cheyenne Chief, 1833, watercolor and pencil on paper, Joslyn Art Museum, 1986.49.384

Karl Bodmer, “Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Mandan Chief, 1834,” Joslyn Art Museum, 1986.49.383
Karl Bodmer, “Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Mandan Chief, 1834,” Joslyn Art Museum, 1986.49.383

I know that I am not the first blind historian, nor will I be the last.  My desire in this brief essay is to demonstrate that the history professions have room for all persons from both the disabled   and non-disabled communities. Through technology we can all create an informative transnational sharing and teaching base.

¹ John M. Kennedy, Drawing & the Blind Pictures to Touch, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 3.
² Judith Ostrowitz, “Full of Blood, Thunder and Springy Abandon – History, Text, and the Appreciation of Native American   Art,” in The Responsive Eye Ralph T Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), 45.
³  John C. Ewers, Early White Influence Upon Plains Indian Painting George Catlin and Carl Bodmer among the Mandan, 1832-34, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1957), 6.
Ibid., 7-8.

Recommended Citation:
Alida Boorn: I Am an Independent Blind Historian. In: Public Disability History 3 (2018) 6.

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