Ben Calabaza: Indigenous Designer with a Dartmouth Connection

Jul 28, 2022

The Mellon-funded project is gearing up to present more workshops, programming, and teaching and learning opportunities for the grant’s final year (2022-23). To help document the work and progress of the Advancing Pathways project, the team sought to work with an Indigenous web designer who could help the team translate into a cohesive design the beauty of the nature surrounding Dartmouth, highlight the connected collections at the Library and Hood museum, and honor the creative traditions of local Abenaki people, upon whose unceded lands Dartmouth is situated. The project was honored to collaborate with designer Ben Calabaza, Kewa – Santo Domingo Pueblo, who is the Vice President of Creative & Marketing at iRoots Media based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Ben Calabaza and Zachary Miller are gloved and handling sweetgrass baskets from the Hood Museum's collection.
Ben Calabaza and Zachary Miller are gloved and handling sweetgrass baskets from the Hood Museum’s collection.

In April of 2022, Ben visited Dartmouth’s campus, took guided tours of the Hood and Library with the Advancing Pathways team and engaged with cultural heritage objects in the collections after several weeks of research and design testing. To culminate Ben’s visit, he presented the Advancing Pathways Steering Committee with three stunning potential logo designs and a website layout. Throughout the design process, Ben and Richel Cuyler, the Advancing Pathways’ Cultural Heritage Technical Developer, have been working to solidify the look and feel of the project overall, and create a coherent style and brand to represent the project’s important work. Recently, Ben spoke with Richel to detail his process in a way that concretized both his personal and professional connections with Dartmouth as he completed his design work. Here he explains those details.

“As I depart on a three-hour bus ride from Boston to Hanover, the view of an urban cityscape slowly transitions from high-rise buildings to dense white pine forests. Seated by the window with my headphones on, I listen to electronic rhythms of deep bass and eighty’s synthesized harmonies. The landscape quickly passes forward, and the tempo of my music drifts my thoughts to the indirect connection I have to Dartmouth. The name Richard Ettinger Jr. quickly presents itself. Ettinger was a Dartmouth alum who was inspired to improve educational opportunities for Native Americans. One of those opportunities was his creation of the Native American Preparatory School (NAPS) in 1995. 

“The school’s mission was to “provide Native American students with a stimulating four-year college preparatory experience stressing character and cultural development through a curriculum encompassing academics, community service, athletics, and the arts.” I graduated from NAPS in 2000.

“As the sun set and the evening started to dominate my view, the green foliage changed to muted blues and purples with hints of amber highlights as cars moved in the dark. Humility set in as I reminisced of the words Ettinger once shared, “With quality education, American Indian people will regain their rightful place in America––proud of their culture and traditions, and confident in their ability to succeed at any endeavor.” I was motivated by the idea that a person with ambition and compassion for Native people could achieve his dream. The feeling of pride and confidence overwhelmed my spirit, knowing that my family and Ettinger shared the same hope for my future. 

“Before I could readjust myself, the long drive was over. Taking my first steps onto the campus, I automatically felt the humidity, which drastically contrasts with the dry high desert air in New Mexico, where my journey began. Having the time to reflect and embrace this new place focused my mind on continuing my design process.

“My initial research was directed to learning about the Indigenous communities that once cared for the land surrounding Dartmouth and the upper east coast. Visually, I was drawn to Wampum belts, specifically belts created to establish treaties. The simplicity of two purple lines in a field of white beads exemplifies the genius of Indigenous design. The beadwork represents two ways of thinking and living (Native and non-Native), and neither will influence the other as their communities move forward. The Advancing Pathways logo uses this concept and is displayed in the center design with two white lines. One represents Dartmouth and the other Native communities. The center section uses a cross-hatch pattern forming a braid and triangles pointing toward each other to emphasize mutual respect, the partnership with communities, and the exchange of knowledge.

“While I visited the Hood Museum, I had the honor of being in the presence of Abenaki baskets. The scent of birch bark and aged sweetgrass influenced the exterior pattern of the logo. When examined closely, the circular pattern contains threads of sweetgrass wrapped with a thin layer of birch bark. The design is incorporated on the outer rim of lids and is distinguishable when viewed from the top. I use this motif in the logo to allow the viewer to look inside the vessel, revealing the project’s purpose and goals. 

“The final treatment of the logo was added to the center section after I visited the Dartmouth Library. On view were the papers of Samson Occom. Occom was an important Mohegan person in the founding of Dartmouth. I use a subtle aged paper texture to give the feeling of longevity.

“As I reflected on the logo design during a walk along the Connecticut River, I heard the words my late grandmother shared when I was ten. “Inspiration is everywhere. Once you open your mind and accept your environment, it will share ideas.” My host pointed out ash trees, which I learned are also used to make baskets. Seeing the material in its natural form made me think of the labor and commitment that goes into making traditional baskets. This experience confirmed that the design is rooted and inspired by place.”

Ben Calabaza sits at a table in Rauner Special Collections while talking to College Archivist, Peter Carini.
Ben Calabaza sits at a table in Rauner Special Collections while talking to College Archivist, Peter Carini.

To see the final project logo chosen, along with project news, events, and teaching and learning resources, visit Advancing Pathways for Long-Term Collaboration website. If you have any questions or ideas for programming or related content, please contact Richel Cuyler at