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"The Painted Arrow People": Art of the Cheyenne

September 9 - December 23, 2008


"Art was completely integrated in the life of the Plains people and was an accepted part of daily existence. No differentiation was made between art and craft."

-- Dr. Joyce C. Szabo


The Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) at Oberlin College is presenting "The Painted Arrow People": Art of the Cheyenne. The exhibit is on view in the museum's Ripin Gallery through December 23, 2008.

Works from the AMAM's collection of Native American art, particularly those of the Plains Indians, are highlighted in this exhibition. One artist in particular, Southern Cheyenne warrior Howling Wolf, documented battles, hunts, ceremonies, and everyday life for 19th-century Native Americans in his vivid and colorful "ledger drawings."

The drawings are displayed alongside exquisitely beaded artifacts created by Cheyenne women of the time. The respect for female Cheyenne artists' geometric quillwork and beadwork was akin to that of male warrior-artists for their trials in battle and subsequent representational accounts, such as those created by Howling Wolf. Invaluable documents of Plains history, the drawings and beadwork present an overview of artistic achievement among the Cheyenne of the late 19th century.

On October 16, noted Native American scholar Dr. Joyce Szabo (University of New Mexico) presented a lecture on the life of warrior-artist Howling Wolf and discuss his works on display in the exhibition.


This exhibition was organized by Jason Trimmer, AMAM Curator of Education, and Penelope Fisher (OC '08).


Introductory text panel

This exhibition of ledger drawings by the warrior-artist Howling Wolf and objects made by Cheyenne women provides a fascinating account of the Cheyenne people and explores the influence white settlers had on their life and art. The show's title refers to this Native American group by both its tribal name "Painted Arrow People" and the name given to them by white settlers, the Cheyenne -- itself a term adopted from the Sioux language.

Howling Wolf's drawings are remarkable for their color, composition and close attention to detail --traits that establish him as one of the most accomplished ledger artists of the late 19th century. The practice of ledger drawing arose from an earlier tradition of recording battle victories onto animal hides. As with many other Plains customs, this tradition changed dramatically through trade with white settlers. From this contact, accountants' ledger books became the preferred support medium on which the Cheyenne to recorded acts of warfare. The size of these books and their portability made them especially conducive to individual artistic expression. Indeed, Howling Wolf's drawings are vibrant illustrations of this, while still exemplifying the masculine tradition of Cheyenne representational art.

Howling Wolf's work is exhibited here with examples of feminine arts of the Cheyenne, specifically geometric beadwork. In addition to creating intricate designs to decorate apparel, personal accessories, and dwellings, women were also charged with the difficult task of preparing the animal hides. For women on the Plains, these artistic endeavors granted a respect akin to a man's for victory in battle. Female artistic guilds were similar to male warrior societies, as both heightened social status and recognized individual accomplishment.


Selected images and wall text from the exhibition


(above: Howling Wolf (Southern Cheyenne Indian, 1849 - 1927), At the Sand Creek Massacre, 1874-1875, Pen, ink, and watercolor on ledger paper, Oberlin Ledger - pg. 4. Gift of Mrs. Jacob D. Cox, 1904.1180.5)


Just after dawn on November 29th, 1864, a Cheyenne camp, under the leadership of Chief Black Kettle, was attacked by soldiers from Fort Lyon (Colorado), where the Cheyenne had been lured to discuss a possible peace treaty. Several hundred people, mostly women, children, and elderly men, were murdered and mutilated. Assured of his safety, Black Kettle had sent most of the group's warriors off to hunt, leaving only a few older boys and men to fight off the assault, including Howling Wolf and his father, Eagle Head.
The Sand Creek Massacre deepened the rift between the tribal chiefs, such as Black Kettle, who had long advocated peace with the white settlers, and members of warrior societies such as the Dog Soldiers and the Bowstring Warriors, who believed that the Cheyenne were sacrificing too much of their land in fruitless negotiations.
Here, ten years after the fact, Howling Wolf makes clear reference to this pivotal event in his life and his people's history. The drawing shows the young Howling Wolf, depicted in the center of the work along with his fellow warriors, immersed in battle. These riders and the wall of Cheyenne warriors on the left all fire upon an unseen enemy, suggesting that their opponent was a formidable and pervading force. Indeed, historical accounts show that the Cheyenne were attacked by 800 troops from Fort Lyon, under the command of Colonel John Chivington. Clearly, this event had a profound impact on Howling Wolf, as it is one of only a few identifiable events in the Oberlin ledger book.


(above: Howling Wolf (Southern Cheyenne Indian, 1849 - 1927), Howling Wolf in battle against wagon train, 1874-1875, Pen, ink, and watercolor on ledger paper, Oberlin ledger - pg. 100, Gift of Mrs. Jacob D. Cox, 1904.1180.28)


For a Cheyenne warrior, one of the biggest feats of bravery was 'counting coup.' This act involved touching an enemy in battle with either one's hand or a lance of some kind (known as a 'coup stick') before retreating unscathed. Though the act itself was nonviolent, it was undertaken at significant risk of injury or death, should the enemy warrior choose to react with force.
Here, Howling Wolf records his first act of 'counting coup' on a member of a wagon party. The hoof prints indicate the path he took towards his target and then his successful withdrawal, representing the moment of contact and the significant moment afterward.

(above: Howling Wolf (Southern Cheyenne Indian, 1849 - 1927), Crow Indians, Heap of Birds, 1874-1875, Pen, ink, and watercolor on ledger paper, Oberlin Ledger - pg. 72. Gift of Mrs. Jacob D. Cox, 1904.1180.18)


A major characteristic of Howling Wolf's drawings is an attention to detail, especially in regards to dress. Both Cheyenne figures and their adversaries are rendered in such a way that they are easily identifiable. The Snake and Crow warriors seen in the two drawings displayed here exhibit garments distinctive of their people. For instance, the Crow man in battle against the Cheyenne warrior Heap of Birds wears the characteristic long-netted hair covering.


(above: Howling Wolf (Southern Cheyenne Indian, 1849 - 1927), Howling Wolf Hunting Buffalo, 1874-1875, Pen, ink, and watercolor on ledger paper, Oberlin Ledger - end piece. Gift of Mrs. Jacob D. Cox, 1904.1180.29)


The practice of ledger drawing emerged from older representational traditions, including fashioning symbols for ritual objects such as shields, and the depiction of narrative accounts on animal hides. These traditions had created an intricate and rich vocabulary of visual 'shorthand' elements, or pictographs, and most ledger artists continued to make use of them. These 'shorthand' images needed to clearly convey information from artist to audience, and as such highlighted the most identifiable characteristics of figures and objects, and communicate information about time and location.
One such convention was the presence of a name 'glyph' hovering over a subject's head, attached with a thin black line. Howling Wolf identifies himself through the image of a wolf with noise, or 'howling,' lines emanating from its mouth. While these drawings have been annotated to include the figure's identities in English, name glyphs were well suited for the same purpose in the drawings' original context.
Other pictographic devices are used to extend the narrative to events that precede or follow those depicted. For instance, weapons that have been fired or objects used to 'count coup' are shown over the heads of figures to indicate previous actions. Elsewhere, partial illustrations of humans or horses suggest greater numbers of players in a scene than the artist can easily fit on the page.

Please click here to view more images and wall text from the exhibition


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