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3 / History and Memory

Untitled, page number 21, from the Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger
Untitled, page number 21, from the Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger
Artist / Origin Arrow (Elk Society), Cheyenne (active 19th century), Central Plains
Region: North America
Date ca. 1875
Material Graphite and colored pencil on ledger paper
Dimensions H: 6 1/8 in. (15.5 cm.), W: 14 ¾ in. (37 cm.)
Location Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Credit Courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art; gift of Mark Lansburgh, Class of 1949, in honor of James Wright, President of Dartmouth College

expert perspective

Barbara ThompsonCurator for the Arts of Africa and the Americas, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University

Additional Resources

Berlo, Janet C., and Phillips, Ruth B. Native North American Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Keyser, James D. The Five Crows Ledger: Biographic Warrior Art of the Flathead. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000.

Penney, David W. North American Indian Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

“Picturing Change: The Impact of Ledger Drawing on Native American Art” (December 11, 2004–May 15, 2005). In Exhibitions. Hood Museum of Art Web site. http://hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/exhibitions.

Plains Indian Ledger Art Project (UC San Diego) Web site. http://www.plainsledgerart.org.

Szabo, Joyce M. Howling Wolf and the History of Ledger Art. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Untitled, page number 21, from the Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger

» Arrow (Elk Society), Cheyenne (active 19th century), Central Plains

The period spanning the 1850s through the 1870s was one of intensified settlement of the West by the U.S. government, business, and enterprising individuals looking for new opportunities.

It was also a time of tremendous upheaval for the native populations that already occupied that western territory. Whether peaceful and diplomatic or violent and bloody, the interactions between Native Americans and non-native settlers ultimately reached the same conclusion—the displacement of Native Americans from their homelands, the fragmentation of their communities, and the disruption of their cultural traditions.

Among the Plains Indians, there existed a longstanding practice of warrior-artists documenting their exploits and achievements, first on rock, and later on buffalo hide, deerskin robes, and tipis. In the mid-nineteenth century, this practice continued in an altered form. As contact with non-natives increased (and buffalo populations waned), warrior-artists found new media for their art in pencil, ink, watercolor, canvas, paper, and ledger, or account, books. This 1875 image is a graphite and colored pencil drawing from the so-called Elk Society Ledger by a Cheyenne warrior-artist identified by his name glyph as Arrow. Among the Cheyenne, the custom of “counting coup” was a show of bravery that involved touching a live enemy during battle and retreating unharmed. This drawing shows a warrior who, having dismounted from his horse, is counting coup on an abandoned baby in an Ute camp. His composure undisturbed by the arrows raining down on him, the warrior is a model of courage.

In addition to autobiographical narratives like the one shown here, “ledger drawings,” as they have come to be known, focused increasingly on scenes of everyday and ceremonial life. The urgency with which these themes began to appear no doubt reflected a sense that such traditions were endangered by the social and political tumult of the period. Further developments in ledger art occurred in the years between 1875 and 1878 among a group of Plains chiefs incarcerated at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. There, they adopted Euro-American pictorial strategies and their repertoire of subjects shifted to encompass the details of their imprisonment and attempts to assimilate them into Western culture. In fact, Colonel Richard Pratt, the officer in charge of Fort Marion, actually used ledger drawings, which he sold to tourists and collectors, as evidence of Native American assimilation. Ironically, these same images were a means of preserving not only a Native American art form, but also Native American history.

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