Native American Ledger Drawings from the Hood Museum of Art: The Mark Lansburgh Collection
October 2- December 19, 2010
Wall texts from the exhibition
Plains Indian men had many methods of recording their accomplishments and history. In ancient times, they carved petroglyphs on rock outcroppings to depict significant events in their lives, including battle scenes and visionary experiences. Such stories were also drawn on animal skins and worn across the shoulders as a particularly vivid testament to the prowess and importance of the individual warrior-artist. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, men who acquired paper and pens or pencils promptly transferred their artistic skills to these new materials, which allowed them to portray details that had been difficult to execute using Native materials. Most of these drawings appear in accounting books, commonly known as "ledger books," though some also appear on unlined paper. While a painted animal robe might hold only a few scenes, the multi-paged ledger books held many whole stories, and they were easy to transport as well. Their greater capacity encouraged warrior-artists to broaden their choice of subjects to include domestic scenes, hunting, and courtship.
These drawings were often made for Native use, but they were also created for the growing market in "authentic" Native American work, and they remain quite popular today among museums and collectors. Some dealers, anxious to capitalize upon this interest, have separated books in order to sell the drawings individually. This has had a dramatic impact upon their study, as narratives have been irretrievably broken up, and often drawings can no longer be ascribed to their original sources.
This exhibition features a host of drawings that were removed from their original books long ago. Despite this fact, we can still appreciate them as unique works of art, framed individually and presented on their own merits as records of Plains Indian lives and culture.
This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, and generously funded by the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Hall Fund, the Eleanor Smith Fund, and the George O. Southwick 1957 Memorial Fund.
Battle of Greasy Grass
Few events in the history of Plains tribes and the U.S. Calvary hold more mythic meaning than the Battle of Greasy Grass, otherwise known as "Battle of Little Bighorn" or "Custer's Last Stand." In the minds of many, this is one of the few battles in which Native warriors defeated the cavalry and its famous general. It took on particular significance by virtue of its timing, just a few days before the United States was to celebrate its centennial. On those fateful days of June 25- -26, 1876, thousands of Plains Indian people came together as one to defend their land and way of life on the prairie of southern Montana. The "survivors" of the battle became famous for their deeds, among them the Native Americans who scouted for the U.S. forces. Objects and souvenirs from these men became highly collectible, including their drawings of their experiences.
Battle with Outsiders
Battle is first among the ways that Plains Indian men achieve honor. It was an opportunity to defend your community and territory against outsiders and perform honorably. Bravery in battle, then, cemented one's place within the community, and this was best demonstrated through counting coup -- that is, touching one's vanquished enemy with an implement or the hand. Such exploits were a frequent inspiration for the personal stories that were recorded on hide paintings and paper, where they were meant to illustrate the ability of the owner to gain honor at the expense of his enemy.
Beauty of the Horse
There are few animals of Native America that are as beautiful as the horse. The constant companion of Plains tribespeople since its introduction to this land, the horse was a gift in itself as well as a giver of freedom and mobility. Horses were used in hunting, scouting, warfare, and large-scale movements from one region to another. It is hard to find an animal that moves more gracefully, and Plains artists demonstrate their keen sense of detail in drawn as well as sculpted renderings of this magnificent beast.
The little we know about Plains courtship practices during the nineteenth century has been passed down through oral tradition, recorded by anthropologists, or shown in Native artwork. Ledger drawings record couples in intimate moments or sharing a courting blanket as they present themselves to their community, and some have a portrait-like quality that demonstrates the importance of the subject to the artist.
Day to Day
Drawing on paper with pens and pencils accommodated a level of pictorial detail that had been very difficult to accomplish in hide painting -- bone brushes and natural pigments could not capture everyday elements such as beadwork and quillwork patterns, blanket designs, or jewelry. With the ability to do so, warrior-artists began to turn their attention to day-to-day activities, and these drawings offer a rare look at Plains Indian life in the nineteenth century.
Like warfare, hunting was an opportunity for Plains men to gain honor. Skill in tracking and harvesting buffalo, deer, and elk was essential for survival, and this group of drawings celebrates men's prowess in providing for their families and community.
Life Is a Ceremony
It has been said that traditional life on the Plains was a continuous series of ceremonies. This complex culture incorporated a web of numerous associations based on accomplishments, gender, age, and so on. These special groups, or societies, had their responsibilities to each other and to the larger community and would perform ceremonies to assert their place or demonstrate their power. These events centered upon dancing, harvesting and serving food, and commemorating or honoring individual or group achievements.
They Traveled Far Away and Returned Changed
In the mid 1870s, seventy-two Plains Indians were sent to prison at Fort Marion (today called Castillo de San Marcos) in St. Augustine, Florida. Arrested for alleged crimes including murder, the prisoners were incarcerated without a trial, hundreds of miles from their homelands. This seventeenth-century Spanish fort held the Native prisoners from 1875 to 1878 as they were "re-educated" under the auspices of one Captain Richard Pratt. During this process, they received both Western and Christian teachings. After their internment, the prisoners either returned to their communities or continued their educations at Hampton Institute in Virginia. Those that went home tried to incorporate their Western ways into the Native American lifestyle, with very limited success.
During their time at Fort Marion, the prisoners were encouraged to create goods that could be traded or sold to visitors of the fort, and many drew their histories and exploits in ledger books. Dozens of completed books today serve as a visual catalogue of traditional life on the Plains and the warrior-artists' experiences during their internment.
Vincent Price Ledger Book
Actor Vincent Price (1911-1993) appeared in over one hundred films throughout his career. He also found the time to collect art -- from Europe, Africa, ancient America, and Native America -- and he owned a particularly prominent Plains ledger book that is commonly known by his name (not its artists' names). The book contained eighty-six drawings of battles between Tsistsistas and U.S. troops. Price's ownership of this book lent considerable credibility to the medium early on.
Return to Native American Ledger Drawings from the Hood Museum of Art: The Mark Lansburgh Collection (11/12/10)
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