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

December 11, 2004 - May 15, 2005



If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place.
He put in your heart certain wishes and plans; in my heart he put other and different desires.
Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit.
It is not necessary, that eagles should be crows.
-- Sitting Bull (Teton Sioux)
School at Fort Marion and the Erasure of Indian Identity
Captain Pratt used the opportunity of close contact between his captives from the Plains and their St. Augustine and New England patrons to encourage their support for his philosophy of Indian education. Opposing segregation through reservations, Pratt believed that Indian education and assimilation of Natives into American society as a means of penal reform would resolve "the Indian problem." Using his charge of Fort Marion to test his theories, Pratt's prisoners were issued military uniforms upon arrival at the prison, were shorn of their long hair, and subjected to rigorous military regimentation, and discipline. Showing unusual empathy with his captives, Pratt released their shackles, dismissed the military guard, and allowed the prisoners to roam freely around the Fort and St. Augustine.
Pratt immersed his captives in English, math, and Christian lessons and trained them in trades that could be helpful to American society. Several St. Augustine women volunteered their services as teachers, holding four to six classes of around ten prisoners per day. With relentless instruction, English soon became the common language among the captives. Through his program of Indian education, Pratt intended to erase Indian identity, sever tribal loyalties, and ultimately promote complete assimilation of Native Americans into American society. He believed his method of Indian education would "kill the Indian and save the man" and put an end to the massacre of Plains peoples while transforming them into law abiding citizens.
The Plains prisoners at Fort Marion were among the first Native Americans to experience the systematic erasure of Indian identity and the resulting crises associated with assimilation and Americanization. Today the corpus of drawings from this period, which were made from direct observation of daily occurrences, serves as an important documentation of the resulting thoughts, quandaries, hopes, and disillusionments of these individuals. The effects of Pratt's assimilation program can be seen in the artists' renditions of themselves as captives: regimented, anonymous, and homogenous. A close examination of classroom drawings by the Fort Marion ledger artists reveals the process of assimilation they underwent, reflecting their vigorous exposure to indoctrination and regimentation. In these drawings, the American values of order, regularity, symmetry, and conformity quickly replace the individuality of the pre-reservation warriors, now reduced to regimented formations of anonymous figures.
Chief Killer, (Noh-hu-nah-wih), Cheyenne, 1849-1922
Untitled, (School at Fort Marion), 1875-1878
Graphite, ink and crayon on paper
Fort Marion ledger artists often placed their figures and self-portraits within identifiable locations at Fort Marion, such as the classroom. This compositional format contrasts with pre-reservation ledger art in which warrior-artists typically recorded scenes after the fact of battle or event with little to no detailing of environment or space. As in other classroom scenes -- indeed as in other Fort Marion scenes -- the artist and his inmates are anonymously rendered wearing government-issue military uniform. Only the signatures in the upper right corner, which replace the traditional pictographic name glyph, suggest the identity of some of the captives depicted here and possibly one of their teachers, a certain Miss Murray. While one of the signatures on this drawing remains illegible, the others list some of the most important chiefs and warriors of the Southern Plains Indian Wars, who also became the best-known ledger artists at Fort Marion: Chief Killer, Howling Wolf, Little Medicine, White Bear, Bear's Heart, Bad Eye, and White Horse. The shaky handwriting of these signatures written in ink suggests that this drawing was signed in the early years at Fort Marion when the captives were first exposed to writing lessons.
Since the Fort Marion ledger drawings lost their traditional value as a visual aid in verbal narratives to a Native audience and were now collected by non-Native patrons, Capt. Pratt, or others familiar with the scenes, penciled in descriptive captions to explain the context of the drawing. Estranged from his traditional life and views of the role of ledger art, the Fort Marion artist now used his drawing skills to communicate an entirely different message to an entirely different audience. This combination of words with image became increasingly popular, especially after the Fort Marion prisoners returned to the reservations passing on this new convention to their peers and successors. When Chief Killer returned to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation in Indian Territory in 1878, he stopped making ledger art and held various jobs as police officer, butcher, and teamster in an effort to fight the poverty of reservation life. In 1887, he sent his daughter to be educated by Capt. Pratt at Carlisle Institute.
Purchased through the Robert J. Strasenburgh II 1942 Fund; D.2003.18.1
Howling Wolf (Ho-na-nist-to), Southern Cheyenne
Untitled (School at Fort Marion), Book of drawings, September 1876, Fort Marion
Pencil, crayon, and ink on paper
At Fort Marion, Howling Wolf was an eager student and continued to create accomplished drawings that became popular items for the growing tourist trade in St. Augustine. Howling Wolf's classroom scene is particularly interesting for its diversity in the action of the various figures; his experimental use of a bird's eye perspective fused with frontal views; and the classroom details including the pupils with pencils in hand, notebooks evenly laid out, the busy teachers and attendants, and what is believed to be a Christian religious image in the background that decorated the classroom and may have served a didactic role in religious teachings.
After his release from Fort Marion in 1878, Howling Wolf had planned to remain in the East along with some of his fellow Fort Marion captives to continue his education. However, due to failing eyesight and unsuccessful operations in the East, he had to return to the reservation in Indian Territory. At first, Howling Wolf maintained the American habits he had learned in Florida but he soon became disillusioned by the impoverished conditions under which he and his people were living on the reservation. By 1881, he thoroughly abandoned his Americanized identity, reverted to Indian dress and customs, obtained the chieftaincy of the Bowstrings society, and argued for the rights of his people and resistance to the continued Euro-American cultural encroachment. In his later ledger art, Howling Wolf abandoned his artistic interest in American society and returned to depicting his heraldic war exploits. Howling Wolf died in 1927 in an automobile accident while returning home to Oklahoma from a stint in a Houston Wild West show, where he was performing an Indian dance four times a day.
Lent by the New York State Library, Albany, 672
Wo-Haw (Gu hau de?), Kiowa
Untitled (Schoolroom at Fort Marion), 1876-77, St. Augustine, Florida
Pencil and crayon
According to local accounts, the volunteer teachers and prisoners gathered every morning in the Fort Marion courtyard where they sang hymns, recited the Lord's Prayer, and were then separated into small groups for classes in the cavernous interior of the Fort. As the well-known scholar Joyce Szabo notes, "the Fort Marion artist was often presenting a detailed window in his new world. Images were placed in exact locales with readily identifiable features." Wo-Haw's rendition of the schoolroom at Fort Marion, as also others in this exhibition, provides us with a rare glimpse into the actual school experience. This drawing features the artist's characteristically large and imposing figures with smiling faces. The composition also reflects the actual physical arrangement of the prisoners in the classroom, sitting on benches in small groups arranged in an "L" shape around the teacher who often gesticulates in an instructive manner. As in similar drawings by other Fort Marion artists, the teacher holds up a flash card used for teaching. Some scholars have suggested that larger than life size figure to the right represents an incomplete sketch; others have suggested the figure is symbolic, spiritual, or metaphoric.
Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, 1882.018.0015

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