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Picturing Change: The Impact of Ledger Drawings on Native American Art

December 11, 2004 - May 15, 2005

 


 
 
The Indian Wars and the Development of Ledger Art
 
When the western frontier opened up to non-Native settlement from the early 1860s through the 1880s, the steady stream of settlers, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and the railroad through the Great Plains caused numerous clashes between Natives and non-Natives. While U.S. troops used warfare as a constant instrument of conquest during the western expansion, the American government used diplomacy, trade, introduced diseases, and assimilation policies to subjugate Plains Indians and claim possession of their lands. Protecting their communities and interests, the Plains warriors defended their lands and cultural practices from the Euro-American onslaught.
 
Through both peaceful and violent means, warrior-artists acquired first ledger books, cloth, ink, pencils, and colored pencils and later notebooks, sketchbooks, muslin, and watercolors with which they visually recorded their historical past and the tumultuous confrontations of the present. These drawings were used as visual aids in the personal recounting of the historic past. In this early developmental stage of ledger art, the artists depicted mainly martial interactions between Native enemies using traditional pictographic conventions borrowed from hide painting. In later phases, when Plains Indians were imprisoned and forced to live on reservations, the artists began to depict also nostalgic pre-reservation scenes of martial confrontations with non-Natives and autobiographic experiences of the cultural changes that were occurring. In doing so, they synthesized Native traditions, subject matter, and perspectives with western media, styles, and ideologies as a means of preserving the memory of both the past and the present.
 
 
Frederick Douglas Ledger artist, Cheyenne, birth date unknown
Untitled (Drawing #55), about 1865
Pen, pencil, colored pencil on paper
 
Named after its collector, the Frederick Douglas ledger was created by three artists whose names we do not yet know. The Cheyenne warrior-artist who created this drawing relied heavily on early nineteenth century pictographic conventions of hide paintings: lack of facial detailing; depicting the lower leg and foot of a rider extended below the belly of his horse; a limited palette of red, green, yellow-ocher, and black pigments; and the depiction of a martial scene between Native enemies. Throughout the Douglas ledger, a general absence of long-range firearms-commonly used during the Indian Wars-suggests that the drawing was created in the earliest years of ledger art when warrior-artists were first experimenting with paper before the outbreak of hostilities between Cheyenne and U.S. troops in 1864.
 
Typical of Cheyenne pictographic arts, this drawing features a single protagonist displaying himself before an enemy. He carries a distinctive forked implement called a histahevikuts or vikuts (heart bladder), which symbolizes his honorific position of servant to the leader of a warrior society. This implement could also be used as a coup stick to strike down the enemy, as shown in this drawing. Each vikuts was decorated in a unique manner, identifying the warrior and his societal membership. To protect his abdomen during battle, the warrior also carries a shield that is decorated with a design identifying him as a member of the Southern Cheyenne. As in older pictographic arts, the rider's detailing of personal adornment served as a marker of his identity, which starkly contrasts to the lack of identifying markers of his slain enemy.
 
Lent by Mark Lansburgh, Class of 1955
 
 
Vincent Price Ledger Artist "C", Cheyenne, birth date unknown
Untitled (Drawing #138), about 1875-1878
Graphite and colored pencil on ledger paper
 
The Vincent Price ledger, named after the movie actor who collected the book, is comprised of eighty-six drawings, many depicting battles between Cheyenne warriors and US troops and settlers during the Indian Wars of 1860s-1870s. The protagonist in this work is dodging bullets shot at him from weapons seen along the right hand edge of the ledger paper. Typical of Cheyenne ledger art, the marks along the bottom of the page signifying the hoof prints of the horse, its flying tail, the blast of the guns, and the airborne bullets add action to the scene. The depiction of long-range firearms in line-up formation-a martial technique commonly associated with the US military-suggests that the event depicted here took place during the Indian Wars in the mid to late 1870s.
 
Despite being made after Native conflicts with U.S. troops began, the style of this drawing is still heavily imbedded in older Plains pictographic conventions. As was common in visual narratives, multiple artists-possibly three in this case-created this ledger book. This artist's style is identifiable by the long nose of the thin warrior and the "seahorse" appearance of his mount's head. The drawing's composition typifies Cheyenne conventions before western influences. The mounted warrior is shown without reference to his spatial environment; balance of scale and perspective is secondary to the importance of the action, which moves characteristically from right to left. Personal adornment and accoutrements-including a buffalo shield marking the protagonist's societal membership-identify the warrior's person and his tribal affiliation. In this drawing, the Cheyenne warrior, who could be the artist himself, is also identified by a pictographic name glyph of a wolf floating above the rider's head.
 
Purchased through the Hood Museum of Art Acquisitions Fund; D.2004.9
 
 
Black Hawk, Sans Arc Lakota, (1832?- ca. 1889?)
Untitled (Plate #4), "Dream Visions" ledger, 1881
Ink and colored pencil on paper
 
 
The ledger artist Black Hawk was chief medicine man of the Sans Arc band of Lakota who lived in the southern part of the Cheyenne River Agency reservation in Dakota Territory. Unknown to art history until 1994 when his drawings re-emerged from the private sector, Black Hawk is now considered one of the most significant Lakota reservation artists. Completed at the height of the reservation period, his ledger drawings represent the most complete extant visual record of traditional Lakota life.
 
According to a typescript bound in the front of the compiled drawings, William Edward Caton collected and bound this series of Black Hawk drawings in 1881. Caton owned the local trading post at the Cheyenne Agency in Dakota and commissioned Black Hawk to record an extraordinary vision he had had during the long, harsh winter of 1880-1881 when his family was near starvation. Caton promised Black Hawk a credit of fifty cents at the trading post for each drawing and provided the artist with pencils, ink, and sheets from a common schoolbook to record his vision. Black Hawk began depicting his visions through representations of traditional Lakota spirit beings but soon deviated from these spiritual representations to document a cultural past that was quickly vanishing. He subsequently created a series of eighty detailed drawings of Lakota social practices such as explosive hunting and war exploits, courting scenes, men and women dressed in ceremonial costume such as in this drawing, and a careful study of local animal life.
 
Lent by the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection, Fenimore House Museum, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY
 
 

 
 
At Fort Marion (on seeing an old Chief of the Comanches in tears)
 
Grey walls and shapely towers,
Thy glory, thy renown,
Are not for times like ours:
They're linked with Spanish Crown
And days of covenant
Twixt Church and royal arms:
And to us no remnant
Of feudal wiles, nor charms
Of priest-craft belong.
 
Above thy ancient side
There shows a figure strong
In strength, and full of pride;
Yet tears dim his eyes,
Fixed fast upon the west.
He sees the sun-set prize
Fall o'er horizon's crest,
And knows that flaming ball,
Ere light shall flush the east,
Will hear the wild bird's call,
And see the very least
Of those who called him chief_
Free men upon the plains.
Ah! Who can name his grief?
Or who will break his chains?
 
-- N.T. St. Augustine, Fla. March 1876
 
 
Imprisonment at Fort Marion and the Commercialization of Ledger Art
 
When the Southern Plains Indian Wars ended in 1875, U.S. troops captured seventy-two of the most influential Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Caddo, and Comanche chiefs and warriors, accused of suspected crimes against settlers and soldiers, and imprisoned them at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida from 1875-1878. Their internment intended to ensure the peaceful conduct of their tribes on the reservations. Unexpectedly, it also supported ledger drawing as a popular new genre of Native arts. Recognizing their talent, Capt. Richard C. Pratt, officer in charge of Ft. Marion, provided his captives with pencils, crayons, pens, watercolors, ledger books, autograph booklets, and sketchbooks, encouraging them to draw their memories and recent experiences. Recording their new impressions, the ledger artists expanded the pre-reservation repertoire from autobiographic and nostalgic depictions of traditional Plains life to observations of landscapes, cityscapes, education, regimentation, and processes of assimilation.
 
While the Fort Marion captives often gave ledger drawings to their teachers and local families with whom they developed close ties, Pratt gave drawings to official delegates to promote his theories on Indian education. He also encouraged St. Augustine townspeople and vacationing tourists to the area -- mostly New Englanders -- to support this new art form by purchasing the ledger books as souvenirs and employing his prisoners. Pratt argued that the prisoner's close interaction with the community, which he called the "outing system," was an important step in their assimilation. The commercialization of ledger art not only immersed the prisoners into the capitalist economy but provided also evidence of the success of their Americanization. The prisoners used the income to support their impoverished families on the reservations or buy extra comforts during captivity.
 
These processes of assimilation were visibly evident in the ledger drawings created at Fort Marion, as artists increasingly moved away from pre-reservation pictographic conventions. Due to their intensive interaction with their American patrons in St. Augustine, the Fort Marion artists developed a drawing style that differed from ledger art created on the reservations at that time. The artists experimented with new pictographic conventions that not only merged western techniques of scale, perspective, representation, and composition with Plains conventions but also reflected the prisoners' rigorous exposure to Pratt's assimilation and indoctrination methods.
 
 
Chief Killer (Noh-hu-nah-wih), Cheyenne (1849-1922)
Untitled (Four Mounted Warriors)
Book of drawings made at Fort Marion, St. Augustine, March 1877
Pencil, ink, crayon, and colored pencil on paper
 
As in pre-reservation ledger art, Chief Killer's nostalgic depictions of Plains life typically appear on a blank page with no further indication of setting or environment. In traditional Plains visual language, the lack of environmental queues was readily associated with the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Used as only one element of many in a comprehensive cultural setting, the drawings would supplement the warrior's verbal recounting of the story. This format of Plains visual narrative -- specifically the lack of environmental signifiers -- differs significantly from many of Chief Killer's drawings of prison life in which spatial arrangement and architectural details are emphasized while representations of personhood, identity, and individuality give way to anonymity and iconic generalization.
 
In his nostalgic representations of traditional Cheyenne life before Fort Marion, Chief Killer maintains his visual focus on the status of people. As in pre-reservation ledger art, the artist identifies his figures through the decoration and display of their societal regalia, including individually and symbolically designed blankets, clothing, breast and hair plates, shields, war bonnets, quivers, and lances. In both pre-reservation and Fort Marion ledger art, the detailing of personal adornment denotes membership in specific warrior societies with designs on the accoutrements serving as signifiers of the owner's identity and his individual standing within society. In this drawing, Chief Killer depicts a procession of Cheyenne warriors in ceremonial regalia and headdresses including leggings and breechcloths made of red trade cloth and yellow buckskin. The warriors carry long feathered lances and shields as the insignia of their membership in a warrior society.
 
Lent by the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library
 
 
Reproductions of a book of drawings made by Chief Killer (Noh-hu-nah-wih), Cheyenne (1849-1922) at Fort Marion, St. Augustine in March 1877.
 
Chief Killer, who was one of the foremost artists of the Fort Marion group, can be identified by his individual style of firmly outlined figures filled in with a variety of colors. His human figures have rounded foreheads, long slightly upturned noses, curving nostrils and prominent at times pointed chins. His well-proportioned horses commonly appear in profile with angular backs, long legs, and prominent hoofs. Chief Killer used strong coloring in some areas and light or no coloring in others, applied with different degrees of pressure, to create a larger range of intensity and hues, a technique that is rarely seen in pre-reservation ledger art. As a whole this bound volume in the exhibition reveals both the diversity of Chief Killer's representations as well as the process of drawing, with some drawing remaining only partially completed.
 
Reproduced with permission from the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, John Hay Library at Brown University
 
 
Bear's Heart (Nock-ko-ist), Cheyenne (1851-1882)
Untitled (Cheyenne Buffalo Hunt)
From a book of drawings made at Fort Marion, about 1876-77
Pen and watercolor on lined paper
 
Lent by the Massachusetts Historical Society (E187)
 
Bear's Heart (Nock-ko-ist), Cheyenne (1851-1882)
Untitled (Miss Nannie Burt's Class of Indian Prisoners, Fort Marion), c. 1875
Book of drawings made at Fort Marion
Mixed media on paper
 
Lent by the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution; 206231
 
The ledger book from which this drawing originated was created by at least seven Fort Marion artists, including Bear's Heart who was among the most accomplished artists at Fort Marion. Bear's Heart was particularly known for his populated narrative scenes, complex compositions, compelling panoramas, and detailed renditions of the prisoners' unusual experiences at Fort Marion. Impressed by their new experiences of different environments during their journey to and in St. Augustine, Fort Marion artists, such as Bear's Heart, were increasingly interested in depicting landscapes and nostalgic scenes of pre-reservation cultural activities located within different spatial settings.
 
In the nostalgic Plains depiction, Bear's Heart creates separate spatial, temporal, and cultural events within the same composition by dividing the page into two registers: the upper half depicting a buffalo hunt; the lower half a village setting. His rendition of life as a free Cheyenne warrior and hunter reveals a stark antithesis to the military discipline apparent in his drawing of the classroom at Fort Marion. The regimented row of anonymous and de-individualized prisoners sit obediently on their benches and face their teacher, Miss Nannie Burt. In contrast to the generic representation of the prisoners, Bear's Heart illustrates the individualized details of Miss Burt's Victorian dress and ribbon-adorned hat as well as details of the classroom setting: blackboard, desk, and chairs. The contrast of compositional elements of asymmetry/symmetry, irregularity/repetition, and individuality/uniformity are visually apparent in both drawings, which illustrate the merging of old and new conventions.
 
 
Howling Wolf (Ho-na-nist-to), Southern Cheyenne (1849­1927)
Untitled (Self-Portrait with Horse), 1875-1878
Pencil, crayon, and ink on paper
 
Before his capture, Howling Wolf was a member of the Bowstring Society, a fraternal warrior society that had become a strong proponent of war by the 1870s. As a teenager, Howling Wolf went to war, counting his first coup in 1867. He soon gained recognition as a young brave and became a leader in his warrior society. Following the Red River War, Howling Wolf was arrested in 1875 and sent to Fort Marion. The Southern Cheyenne tribes, on the other hand, were forced to live on reservations in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
 
Howling Wolf was one of the most talented and innovative artists at Fort Marion. Abandoning most of the old warrior art style of picture writing, he composed drawings with a strong sense of design, decorativeness, balance, symmetry, and rhythm seldom seen in traditional Plains pictographic arts. He carefully outlined his figures in ink, coloring them in with crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors using flat opaque tones. In this drawing, he fills the ledger page with his own imposing figure standing next to his steed. Both are rendered in detailed Cheyenne attire to communicate and identify his personal, tribal, and societal affiliations.
 
In this self portrait, Howling Wolf's signifying adornment differs significantly from renditions of himself and others at Fort Marion as captives, which lack individuality or identifying characteristics. Only his signature, which replaces the traditional name glyph of a howling wolf, identifies the artist-protagonist in this drawing. The flowing ease with which the artist has signed this work suggests that it was created toward the later rather than the earlier part of his imprisonment at the Fort Marion between 1875 and1878.
 
Lent by Mark Lansburgh, Class of 1949
 
 

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