Friday, November 6, 2020

Ledger Art of the Plains Indians

by Patti Sherry-Crews


Ledger art is a type of narrative drawing done by Plains Indians, which emerged largely between the 1860's and and 1920's. Not so coincidently this was a time period of heightened contact, often hostile, between Native Americans and encroaching white civilization. Ironically, this close contact provided the Plains tribes with the tools to record the demise of a way of life.

Ledger Book

With their need for record-keeping and list-making, missionaries, military officers, traders, and agents came equipped with ledger books, pencils, and watercolors. These ledger books and drawing implements provided the Native Americans with a very portable, easy to use art medium.

Previously, painting was done on hides. Women typically worked in abstract design on portable artifacts such as bags or parfleches, while the men decorated shields, shirts, and tipis with representational art depicting visions, bouts of warfare, or hunting feats. Buffalo hides were a favorite canvas, but when the herds were decimated by the white men, buffalos became a scarce resource.

Bison Hunt

Ledger art depicts scenes of action without the noise of any images filling in the background--other than perhaps, lines marking columns and rows on the paper, making striking statements. Sometimes these works of art were communal with for instance, one artist drawing the people while another artist drew the animals. Other times the individual artists are known and their names have passed down to us. 

A large collection of ledger art came out of Fort Marion, Saint Augustine, Florida where a mixed group of 72 Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho Indians were imprisoned there between 1875 and 1878. 

The battles between U.S. soldiers and Indians have proved valuable because we get the other side's view of the events. For instance, it's not true that there were no survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. None of the men under Custer's command survived but there were thousands of survivors on the Indian side, and the ledger art they left behind has helped historians understand what happened on that day. 

Battle of Little Big Horn by White Swan

Sand Creek Massacre

Or glimpses of intertribal warfare.

Kiowa Mounted Warfare

Crow and Cheyenne Warriors 

The images presented in this narrative artform show a culture in transition and a memorialization of the before-days prior to reservation life. 

Big Elk's Tipi, complete with painting of two river steam boats 

Lakota Sioux Chief, Black Hawk, Depicting a Horned Thunder Being or Haokah

Images courtesy of Wiki Commons

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Andrea Downing said...

Thanks so much for this informative post, Patti. I love ledger art and am lucky enough to own 4 sheets, which are framed and hang above my fireplace in WY. Nowadays there are a number of very well known ledger artists, although I understand it's becoming more and more difficult to find the old ledgers to work with.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Andrea, I was thinking of you and remembering that you own some ledger art. You're so lucky to be able to enjoy it in your own home and I hope you will be back there soon! I did see there are still ledger artists at work today, but I never thought about them using actual old ledgers. Interesting.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Really interesting. I've never heard of ledger art.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Kristy! If you never heard of ledger art, then I'm happy to introduce you to it! I love it. Do an "image" search if you want to see more examples.