Folk art is essential in indigenous cultures, and Native American ledger drawings are no exception.
Plains tribes kept pictorial records of their history on rocks, hides, and finally on paper for thousands of years. Paper ledgers, a symbol of colonialism and oppression, became tools of self-identity and even resistance for artists in the 19th century through their drawings.
What happened to these records, and what can they teach us about the tribes?
Let’s find out!
Winter Count: Precursor to Ledger Drawings
Pre-colonial indigenous cultures on the Great Plains told their history through stories. The keeper, or oral historian, was responsible for telling the important events in a tribe’s past. Throughout the year, from first snowfall to first snowfall, the keeper of a tiospaye’s (community’s) winter count worked with elders to select which stories to tell.
The historian recorded the image in a permanent mnemonic device. We have existing records on stone and animal hides reaching back to pre-history. More recently, they used ledger paper or muslin to record these images.
The keeper played a vital role in telling the history of a people with no written language. Forgetting wasn’t an option. So, the winter count records gave a visual roadmap for these storytellers. But, the incursion of colonizers into Native lands forced a change.
The U.S. government began eradicating buffalo herds on the Great Plains. Formerly nomadic tribes no longer had access to vital resources and needed a new way to record their history. Resourceful record keepers found this resource in the hands of their greatest enemies, ledger books.
So, What Are Ledger Drawings?
In pre-digital American society, ledger books kept lists of goods, stocks, and transactions for settlers. For keepers, they filled the hole left by the disappearing buffalo hides. Native artists used these books to keep the winter count tradition alive. They documented daily life, battles with other tribes, courtship, and encounters with white settlers.
Sadly, Native Americans on the Great Plains felt the brunt of American expansion. The U.S. government targeted tribes for relocation and, in some cases, genocide. Ledger drawings shifted from being the narrative of a tribe to the story of resistance. Often several warriors contributed to a single book chronicling their battles.
One unique aspect of ledger drawings is that they don’t use the left-to-right, linear reading associated with most western cultures. Instead, readers must sometimes turn pages over to follow the images.
Images also flow from page to page; hoofprints on one page turn into horses on the next. Native artists used ledgers to record chronological histories, like the winter count, and kept these records close.
According to author Candy Bedworth in Daily Art Magazine, the story of Lakota warrior Little Fingernail is an excellent example. In 1878 Little Fingernail kept his ledger book strapped to his body. A U.S. army officer tried to purchase it from him, but he refused and left.
Shortly after, on the plains of Montana, Little Fingernail was killed. After removing the book from his body, army forces kept it as a trophy. Little Fingernail and his stories live at the New York National History Museum.
Why Is Ledger Art So Important?
Ledger art is so important because the voice of Native people usually isn’t heard. In the U.S., those cultures exist around us on reservations, usually in poverty.
Ledger art from the 19th century gives an alternate history to the one taught in schools, the story of the oppressed. And while traditional ledger art told stories of everyday life, modern ledger art tells a different story.
Contemporary Native artists use the genre to expose government hypocrisy and injustice on the reservation. Artists like Merle Locke use documents from the 18th century as their canvas for social commentary.
On a land grant to a woman for giving up her children, Locke paints a Lakota woman searching for her children. The woman represents Native Americans and their lost history forcefully taken by the U.S. government.
What Is the Plains Ledger Art Digital Publishing Project (PILA)?
The Plains Indian Ledger Art Project (PILA) facilitates the digitization of ledger art from 1860-1900. Because of the cultural value held in these texts, PILA exists to protect them through digitization. Further, they provide public access to researchers through their website.
The books are fragile, so reducing the amount of handling they go through is key to their survival. They estimate around 200 ledgers exist in personal and museum collections. One of their goals is to preserve these documents as well. So, if you have one in your private collection, they’d love to hear from you.
Who Are Some Famous Ledger Drawing Artists?
After you’ve checked out the PILA collection’s historical ledgers, look at these contemporary artists. Each of these Native artists uses ledger art in their work and moves the art form in new directions.
Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Montileaux is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Unlike many folk artists, Don went to school to be an artist. He attended the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When he left his day job to become a full-time artist, his work took on a new quality.
Now he has work in galleries across the western plains. Montileaux also had the distinct honor of working aboard the spaceship Endeavour in 1994. His style incorporates hallmarks of ledger drawing, including red dividing lines and flat features on his human figures.
Ledger art is traditionally practiced by men, so Dolores Purdy stands out among her peers. This Santa Fe artist is a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and Winnebago tribes. Purdy also stands out through her use of humor and pop iconography in her expression of ledger art.
She attended the Institute of American Indian Art and Washburn University and has work exhibited around the southwest. Her work also appears in collections at The White House, the book Women and Ledger Art, and the National Museum of the American Indian.
Merle Locke, another artist from the Oglala Lakota tribe, grew up on the troubled Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He learned his art from his father and decided to pursue a career in art in 1992. A private man, his work is mainly found in juried art shows, small galleries, and online retailers.
Locke specializes in work that references the documents it’s drawn on. His work, A Nation of Great Legacies, juxtaposes three native women on a map with horribly offensive names for rivers and land bodies.
Terrance Guardipee’s wildly colorful ledger drawings capture viewers with their innovative take on the art form. A member of the Blackfeet tribe, Guardipee grew up in northern Montana on tribal land. After attending the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, Guardipee incorporated a contemporary color palate into his traditional work.
His most significant innovation was to include other documents in his work, including maps, war rations booklets, and checks. Art critics appreciate his use of Blackfeet-specific imagery in his decidedly contemporary take on ledger art.
Where Can I See Ledger Art?
If you live in the Mountain West or Great Plains, your local gallery or museum likely holds some ledger art in its collection. But, if you’re outside of the region, it may be harder to see ledger art in person. Beyond online galleries, here are a couple more places to find it.
Located in Rapid City, South Dakota, Prarie Edge is a gallery and trading post dedicated to preserving the traditions of Great Plains tribes. Two stories and a half city block long, Prairie Edge houses a massive collection of Native American art.
With a goal of education and preservation, this gallery has an excellent online presence for shopping and reading. You can also find a Pow Wow calendar for in-person experiences.
Prairie Edge has work from several ledger art creators, such as Don Montileaux, Joe Pulliam, and George Levi.
Milwaukee Public Museum
The Milwaukee Public Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the proud owner of 36 reproductions from the Red Hawk Ledger. This example of Lakota ledgers came from the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Most images from the ledger involve warfare and horse capture involving the Lakota and Apsáalooke (Crow) tribes. They have an excellent online archive of pictures, and you can order a reproduction of the ledger for your collection.
Outside Folk Art
Our collection also offers excellent examples of ledger and other folk art. We have an original piece from Merle Locke’s ledger art and are constantly adding more.
Outside Folk Art celebrates the work of folk and outsider artists. Our goal is to amplify the voices of rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artists. In addition to our online gallery, we’ll offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums.
Learn More About Native American History Through Ledger Art
Ledger drawing is an integral part of Great Plains Native American culture. Recognizing these artists’ contributions to their communities is just the beginning. Supporting Native artists keeps the power in their hands. So find authentic work from Native creators and follow the story of Native America wherever they take you.