Native American Art Magazine

Insubordination, Narration and History: Modern and Historical Ledger Art

THE KEY CONCEPTS AT THE HEART OF CONTEMPORARY LEDGER ART ARE NARRATING A STORY, RECORDING HISTORY AND ABOVE ALL, INSUBORDINATION, WITH DRAWING OVER THE MATERIAL RECORD OF THE INVADING EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN CULTURES. LEDGER ART HAS DEEP ROOTS IN TWO REALMS OF NATIVE AMERICAN ARTS FROM LONG BEFORE THE EUROPEANS CAME: 1) THE WINTER COUNT: PAINTING ON THE INSIDE OF A BUFFALO ROBE, USING ONE SYMBOL FOR EACH YEAR, GOING IN A COUNTERCLOCKWISE MOTION AND MOVING TOWARD THE VERY CENTER OF THE BUFFALO ROBE, AND 2) PAINTING ON HIDES AND WAR SHIRTS, IN WHICH A MAN WAS EXPECTED TO RECORD HIS CLAN AND HIS NOTABLE EXPLOITS IN BATTLES. ALSO, SOME TEPEE PAINTING WAS DONE BY THE LEAST MOBILE AND THEREFORE MOST SECURE OF THE TRIBES, CLANS AND SUB-CLANS. SO, AS IT EXISTED BEFORE THE WHITE MAN CAME, TRADITIONAL PLAINS LEDGER ART SHOWED LIFE IN THE VILLAGE PLUS DEPICTIONS OF “COUNTING COUP” AND BATTLE EXPLOITS.

Modern ledger art is a direct outgrowth of traditional Plains hide painting. Before the Plains tribes were forced to live on reservations in the 1870s, men painted personal feats in battle or hunting. To this day, the depictions of people were drawn first as outlines and then filled in with panels of color.

Women depicted more geometric designs, even at times abstract, while men painted representational designs. The men’s designs depicted their clans (what in Europe would be called “heraldry”) and often as well more spiritual visions depicted on robes, leggings, shirts, tepees and shields, with the shields usually showing the animal spirit that protected the warrior in battle.

As the buffalo hides dwindled in quantity—because of the U.S. government’s intended programs to eradicate buffalo as a food source in order to cripple the Native populations, so that they would not return to their prior nomadic ways and settle down to work at farm labor like good little Indigenous workers—ledger art was forced to switch from buffalo hides to muslin sheets, canvas and paper.

One beneficial development came with the more available supply of ledger books and other material on which to draw, coming from traders, soldiers, government agents and even missionaries. Watercolors, crayons and pencils abounded. These new materials allowed for greater detail and experimentation than the earlier tools, such as bone or wood styluses dipped in mineral pigments. The compact ledger books and pencils were portable, making them ideal for nomadic lifestyles.

There have been many ledger depictions of famous slaughters and battles, most notably in my realm of ledger art, in the work of Southern Cheyenne artist George Curtis Levi’s depictions of the-century Native history: Col. Reverend John Chivington.

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