Plains Indians Tell Their Stories Through Ledger Art

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

Indian Killing White Man
The piece titled "Indian Killing White Man," circa 1882, is part of the Vincent Price Ledger, which is part of the ledger art collection held by The Met in New York City. Public Domain

Note: In deference to the artists' visions, HowStuffWorks did not crop any ledger art to our usual site dimensions.

A colored pencil drawing of a horse on lined paper features a male rider dressed in colorful clothing. He's carrying a shield and pointing a gun at a second man, a white man dressed in blue who's also on horseback. The white man is bleeding from a wound in the lower abdomen. Several other colorful horses are visible, as are what appear to be bullets or arrows flying through the air.

This description is of a piece of ledger art included in the well-known Vincent Price Ledger Book, which was owned by — and named for — American actor Vincent Price. Although Price owned the drawings and the book, they were created by an anonymous Cheyenne artist around 1875 and provide real-life depictions of what life was like for Plains Indians at that time.

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What Is Ledger Art?

Ledger art is a form of drawing practiced by Plains Indians during the late 19th century. While there have been plenty of Anglo artists who have painted and sculpted romanticized scenes of the American West, ledger art provides first-person accounts of how the Plains people viewed themselves, according to director of Morning Star Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Henry "Chick" Monahan.

In fact, in a 2016 essay for JSTOR Daily, Ellen C. Caldwell cites art historian Janet Catherine Berlo who said ledger art created a counter-narrative of U.S. history. Within these works, viewers can find references to politics, journalism, ethnography, history and more, if they know how to decode them.

"Although a drawing can be simple looking, there's a lot of information in there," says Monahan. "It can draw you in and make people ask questions. It opens a discourse on the culture from that time period."

This tradition began as warrior art, and the artist — who would not be considered a professional artist in the Western, contemporary sense — focused on drawing himself. (Yes, it was a male tradition.) The artist depicted himself dressed in a manner people who knew him would recognize. He recorded his battles, social status, personal achievements and positions of leadership or authority.

Later, the art was dubbed "ledger art" because the pieces were drawn in accountant ledger books that became available to the Indians as more white Americans moved into the West. But the history of these types of works is much longer.

Cheyenne Indian Red Eagle
This undated piece shows two figures and is attributed to Cheyenne Indian Red Eagle. It is part of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.
Smithsonian Institution

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Historical Development of Ledger Art

The earliest forms of this type of drawing included pre-contact rock art. In the book "Plains Indian Rock Art," authors James D. Keyser and Michael A. Klassen explain that various types of rock art date back more than 5,000 years. Like later ledger art, the scenes on rock art could range from victories in battles to images of daily life.

Etched on hard surfaces, petroglyphs were unsurprisingly simpler, while painted pictographs could include a variety of colors, according to Museums of Western Colorado.

By the late 18th century, Plains peoples painted these important scenes on buffalo hides, which were easily transported, unlike rock art. And like war shirts, these hide paintings were biographical documents in which men recorded events that took place in their lives. The paintings continued for years as new events occurred and were added, such as war honors and personal achievements.

By the 19th century, U.S. Western expansion and trade brought ledger books into the Plains communities, and the artists began using this lined paper for their drawings. In these books, each page might contain a single event as the artist continued to fill the pages. It was this era that gave the art its name.

Artists used a variety of materials, such as graphite, colored pencils, Indian ink and watercolors, to create their works. Over time, additional materials were incorporated.

Not only did the mediums shift, but the depictions in ledger art did also. That's because the relationship between the Plains peoples and the U.S. government changed. By the end of the 1870s, the U.S. government had forcefully relocated the Plains peoples to reservations.

One particular warrior artist who created images while imprisoned at Fort Randall was the great Lakota Chief Tatanka Yotanka, better known as Sitting Bull. Some of his images are now housed in the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.

According to Plains Indian Ledger Art (PILA), "Plains artists added scenes of ceremony and daily life from before the reservation to the repertoire of their artwork, reflecting the social and cultural changes brought by life on the reservation within the larger context of forced assimilation." Once the Indians were in U.S. captivity, they had fewer opportunities for war honors, and artists began depicting more hunting scenes and "ceremonial" subject matter in ledger art.

Sitting Bull
Four Horns drawing of Sitting Bull with shield in battle with Crow Indians, circa 1870, is part of a 55-drawing collection of war deeds attributed to Sitting Bull and Jumping Bull. The collection is housed at the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.
Smithsonian Institution

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The Significance of Ledger Art

As we mentioned, ledger art touches on ethnography, political science, journalism, sociology, tribal history, American history and more, Monahan says. Many 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century works depicting Native Americans were painted by non-Native Americans and provide unrealistic images of them.

"These are first-person accounts," says Monahan. There is a lot of information in these drawings when you learn how to decipher them, and they show how the artists viewed themselves, not how someone else viewed them.

The widespread tradition of creating ledger art dissipated in the early 20th century, although some artists kept it going. One example is the Walter Bone Shirt ledger, which was created around the turn of the century. Not much is known about the artist, other than he was a Brulé Lakota and his Indian name was likely Never Misses. A few of his pieces are held in private collections.

Contemporary artists do still continue the tradition of ledger art, today. Native American artist Dwayne "Chuck" Wilcox, uses ledger art as a form of political satire. He honors the tradition and seeks to share a continuing view of how natives see the European culture.

Another modernization of the art has been the entrance of women artists into this historically male artform. Consider, for example, Dolores Purdy. For more than two decades, she has used "the same medium of antique paper and colored pencils" to create "a contemporary version from the female perspective," her website says. Today, Purdy's work is for sale at Monahan's Morning Star Gallery.

going for dinner
Dolores Purdy, who is a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, is a prominent female contemporary ledger artist. Most of her pieces, like this one titled "Going for Dinner," are full of bright colors and vivid imagery.
Dolores Purdy

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Collecting Ledger Art Today

If you're interested in acquiring pieces of ledger art, you will find both historic and contemporary options. Of course, you need to find a trusted dealer or gallerist selling the work and examine the condition of the piece if it's old.

"Find out what you like," Monahan says, but purchase for quality, authenticity and personal taste, he advises.

The oldest pieces created in ledger books are mostly found in institutions and museum collections. And there are still some complete, intact ledger books today. So for the average collector, look for individual sheets, which can still cost anywhere from thousands of dollars to more than six figures.

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