Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Untitled, page number 21, from the Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger
The period spanning the 1850s through the 1870s was one of intensified settlement of the West by the U.S. government, business, and enterprising individuals looking for new opportunities.
It was also a time of tremendous upheaval for the native populations that already occupied that western territory. Whether peaceful and diplomatic or violent and bloody, the interactions between Native Americans and non-native settlers ultimately reached the same conclusion—the displacement of Native Americans from their homelands, the fragmentation of their communities, and the disruption of their cultural traditions.
Among the Plains Indians, there existed a longstanding practice of warrior-artists documenting their exploits and achievements, first on rock, and later on buffalo hide, deerskin robes, and tipis. In the mid-nineteenth century, this practice continued in an altered form. As contact with non-natives increased (and buffalo populations waned), warrior-artists found new media for their art in pencil, ink, watercolor, canvas, paper, and ledger, or account, books. This 1875 image is a graphite and colored pencil drawing from the so-called Elk Society Ledger by a Cheyenne warrior-artist identified by his name glyph as Arrow. Among the Cheyenne, the custom of “counting coup” was a show of bravery that involved touching a live enemy during battle and retreating unharmed. This drawing shows a warrior who, having dismounted from his horse, is counting coup on an abandoned baby in an Ute camp. His composure undisturbed by the arrows raining down on him, the warrior is a model of courage.
In addition to autobiographical narratives like the one shown here, “ledger drawings,” as they have come to be known, focused increasingly on scenes of everyday and ceremonial life. The urgency with which these themes began to appear no doubt reflected a sense that such traditions were endangered by the social and political tumult of the period. Further developments in ledger art occurred in the years between 1875 and 1878 among a group of Plains chiefs incarcerated at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. There, they adopted Euro-American pictorial strategies and their repertoire of subjects shifted to encompass the details of their imprisonment and attempts to assimilate them into Western culture. In fact, Colonel Richard Pratt, the officer in charge of Fort Marion, actually used ledger drawings, which he sold to tourists and collectors, as evidence of Native American assimilation. Ironically, these same images were a means of preserving not only a Native American art form, but also Native American history.
Expert Perspective: 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.”
Berlo, Janet C., and Phillips, Ruth B. Native North American Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Keyser, James D. The Five Crows Ledger: Biographic Warrior Art of the Flathead. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000.
Penney, David W. North American Indian Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
“Picturing Change: The Impact of Ledger Drawing on Native American Art” (December 11, 2004–May 15, 2005). In Exhibitions. Hood Museum of Art Web site. http://hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/exhibitions.
Plains Indian Ledger Art Project (UC San Diego) Web site. http://www.plainsledgerart.org.
Szabo, Joyce M. Howling Wolf and the History of Ledger Art. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.