December 5, 2010

Native American Ledger Drawings

Howling Wolf, Southern Tsistsistas (Cheyenne), ca. 1874-75; ink and watercolor on wove blue-lined notebook paper.

A few days ago I went down to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College to see a beautiful show of a recently acquired collection of Native American ledger drawings. I had first seen a show of these works at the Drawing Center in NYC in 1996, and was very excited by them then. I love their simple form and strong sense of fluid line, their color, and marvelous design sense. In this they remind me of Persian and Indian miniatures, though not as refined.

These drawings grew out of traditional painting on hide by Plains tribes; in the upheaval and horrors in the lives of Native Americans in the late 19th century, ledger books and drawing tools such as pencil and ink replaced traditional materials. Some of the subject matter remained the same, as in the self portrait of the warrior Howling Wolf, above, being victorious in battle.

Ohettoint, Gaigwa (Kiowa), 1875-77; graphite and colored pencil on wove unlined notebook paper.

In 1874-75, many tribal leaders were rounded up after the Buffalo War and sent to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, where many of the prisoners became active artists. In the drawing above, Ohettoint shows a fanciful locomotive (though with what looks like a prone figure) that he probably rode on his way to prison.

Unknown Southern Tsistsistas (Cheyenne) artist; page #105, from the Old White Woman ledger, ca, 1880-90; graphite and colored pencil on wove ledger paper.

The rows of draped onlookers at a Sun Dance ceremony create an engaging pattern of color and shape. Forgive my wandering mind, but I couldn't help thinking of burkas, and the simple drawing of figures in the film Persepolis, about a young girl's life in Iran.

Frank Henderson, Inunaina (Arapaho), ca. 1875-78; page #92 from the Vincent Price ledger; graphite and colored pencil on laid ledger paper.

These beautifully observed horses, shot in battle, gracefully reel from their wounds, caught in a moment of galloping forward.

Unknown Southern Tsistsistas (Cheyenne) artist, ca. 1880-90; graphite, colored pencil and watercolor on wove ledger paper.

A man, just initiated into the Bowstring Society, brings gifts to the high-ranking members. The array of animal skins, feathers, rifles, one thing piled on another, are in balance with the emptier side of the page, with just two objects (which I can't figure out) above the horse. There's something musical about this variation on the page.

Unknown Brule Lakota (Sioux) artist, ca. 1870; ink colored pencil and ink wash on wove unlined notebook paper.

This drawing of a warrior raiding two horses is one of the most stunning images in the show. There is a drama of black against yellow on the horse, with the black of the rider heightening the effect, powerfully set against the paler outlines of the horses attempting to flee, their hoofprints flowing behind them. The warrior is angular, the repeating curves of the horses necks are rhythmic and elegant. That such marvelous art came out of the tragedy of the lives of our native peoples is a wonder; we are lucky to be able to see it.


  1. great story- i've found ledger drawings remind me a little of bill traylor paintings. i once complained at the hood about a big drawing show in which all the African American artists were hung together in the same wall- including a bill traylor next to a romare bearden- i said that pairing is absurd, they they were segregated, and i suggested traylor had more kinship with the artists of the kiowa ledger drawings than romare bearden. i'm sure it's debatable- but formally and conceptually i thought they were more closely related.

  2. Thank you - these are stunning.
    All of them!
    and that yellow and black is so well drawn at the same time that it is part of the design.

  3. That's an interesting thought, Marc, about Bill Traylor. It'd be fun to have a show of art that depends on sensitive line to make form: Traylor, ledger drawings, Indian and Persian miniatures, Egyptian reliefs, etc.
    and thanks, A, I'm happy you like these drawings too. I hope you get to see some "in the flesh" sometime.

  4. Do you know how long is this show up, Altoon? I want to see it!

  5. Altoon, this is a marvelous post--I've never put my love for Sioux hide painting and miniature painting together--my goodness, what a correspondence! Fascinating to see how a train is experienced and then portrayed. Those two mystery objects: a rope and a fringed chap or leg piece perhaps? The use of black, yellow, red and the neutral of the paper reminds me of Indian (east) gouache painting. Thanks for sharing this show with us.

  6. Susan, the show is up only until December 19th, so make plans to go soon.
    Hannah, your guesses on those objects sound right to me. So you too see the correspondence with Indian painting.
    I enjoy sharing these art experiences, and it's especially nice when I can take the photos myself, as here.

  7. Stunning is the word. Thanks for all this detail. The flow in the Lakota Sious piece reminds me of cave paintings...

  8. I've been enamored of these ledger drawings also, finely detailed but also felt - not as generic as many persian/ indian paintings ofen are - and I'm curious about the kind of pictorial space these utilize - it really is drawing/ narrative space more than page surface....

  9. Julie, I certainly can see a relationship to cave paintings.
    rappel, that's an interesting point about narrative space; since the paper was just a convenient surface, and the tradition was much larger and more complex narratives on hide, your observation seems very apt.

  10. I saw a show of these drawings a few years ago in Milwaukee. It was a thrill to see them in person after years of looking at them in books. I find the comparisons fascinating and can see resemblances in all of them.