Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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3 / History and Memory

Untitled, page number 21, from the Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger
Untitled, page number 21, from the Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger
Artist / Origin Arrow (Elk Society), Cheyenne (active 19th century), Central Plains
Region: North America
Date ca. 1875
Material Graphite and colored pencil on ledger paper
Dimensions H: 6 1/8 in. (15.5 cm.), W: 14 ¾ in. (37 cm.)
Location Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Credit Courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art; gift of Mark Lansburgh, Class of 1949, in honor of James Wright, President of Dartmouth College

expert perspective

Barbara ThompsonCurator for the Arts of Africa and the Americas, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University

Untitled, page number 21, from the Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger

» Arrow (Elk Society), Cheyenne (active 19th century), Central Plains

expert perspective

Barbara Thompson Barbara Thompson Curator for the Arts of Africa and the Americas, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University

Native peoples, before ever having contact with Americans, were using imagery as a way of capturing important moments of life to document it, but also to pass it on to future generations. They were drawing on rocks, they were drawing on sand, they were painting on hides.

When the Plains peoples came in contact with Westerners, then, of course, the Westerners had paper and had pencils and ink and pens. They started trading these media and certainly using pencil and paper and color pencils and paints. They were easier to carry with them. If there is a group of young warriors out on the hunt they can take their ledger book with them and document what was happening. And this made it possible for an expansion of these kinds of pictorial arts being used as an individualized form of documentation. The artist/warrior/chief owned the imagery. You could only paint the imagery or draw the imagery if you experienced it.

So these are autobiographical narratives about the accomplishments and the deeds of the individual or the individual’s group. There are plenty of instances where you have multiple artists who are telling their story. And with these multiple voices telling their story in an individual ledger book, you get that multiple perspective of that given time in history from that group’s perspective.

Once the Plains people were forced to live on reservations where some of the Plains artists were taken into imprisonment, then they were recording their histories both as a form of nostalgia and remembrance and trying to hold onto the identity that was being stripped from them.

At the same time, around the 1870s, particularly with the removal of about seventy-two warriors and chiefs to Fort Marion for imprisonment, then there was an industry of ledger drawing. Captain Richard Pratt, who was the head of the prison, saw an opportunity in these ledger drawings to introduce and to assimilate his captives into American society and to sell these drawings to visitors who wanted to see what a real Native person looked like from the Plains. So these became bona fide commodities. The artists themselves were given some of the proceeds from the sale and they could send the money back to the reservations to their families. So, it became an important source of income for the artists themselves, but also it became a political tool for Captain Pratt to sell the idea to Washington and to the American people that the slaughter of the Plains people should stop. There was a conscious effort to destroy everything that they stood for, and yet, at the same time, these drawings were promoted as evidence of their possibility of Americanization and assimilation.” 

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