Newberry Library Staff
At First Glance
Describe this artwork. Look at the paper the artist used. Have you seen or used this kind of paper before? What do you think the figures are doing? Who might have created it?
Read to Build Knowledge
Think about the important traditions in your life and community. How do you tell stories about them? This artwork shows one way that Plains Indians recorded traditions that were important in their communities. This type of art is called a ledger drawing. Ledgers are a type of accounting notebook that was used before computers to keep business and personal records. Columns and lines printed on the paper make it easy to add numbers and make notes. On this sheet, you can see page numbers, 180 and 181, in the left corners. But in ledger art, the lines and numbers on the paper are not important to the artwork. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Native Americans living in the West experienced major changes in the way they lived. Many were forced to move to reservations. Plains Indians obtained these books from U. S. soldiers, traders, missionaries, and reservation employees, and started using them to record their traditions and scenes from their lives.
Before they used ledgers, Plains Indian artists recorded their tribal histories and traditions on buffalo hides using paints made from natural materials and bone or stick brushes. Buffalo were very important to tribes like the Cheyenne, Dakota, Comanche, and other Native Americans in the Great Plains. Indians living in this region used parts of the buffalo for art, clothing, food, and other uses. Once European Americans began to settle in the west, however, the buffalo were hunted in large numbers and nearly went extinct. The U. S. government also encouraged the destruction of buffalo herds, as part of efforts to fight and control Native Americans. With less access to buffalo and more encounters with white Americans, Plains Indian artists started turning to paper to tell their stories.
The use of paper changed the appearance of Plains Indian art. While buffalo hide paintings had a large surface where an artist could paint multiple images that could be seen all at once, ledger drawings are much smaller and more detailed. The drawings in ledger books tell the stories of a tribe one at a time, even though they are part of a larger narrative. In general stories told in ledger drawings were often about battles, hunts, and other cultural rituals. Because of the storytelling aspect of the art, artists chose to show the most important details for each story. This is why you don’t usually see an illustrated background in a ledger drawing. Backgrounds were only included if they added important details to the story. Ledger artists used whatever materials were available, many of which were new, like colored pencils, crayons, or even watercolor paints.
Often multiple artists created drawings within one ledger book. Sometimes multiple artists even worked together on a single drawing. This image is by one artist, a North Cheyenne warrior named Black Horse. Black Horse created many drawings in the book this image comes from and his name appears frequently in it. This particular drawing shows a group of Native Americans dancing in traditional clothing.
Analyze and Interpret
- Why do you think Black Horse depicted a dancing scene? What details in the artwork help you understand what the figures are doing?
- Do you think Black Horse’s art is autobiographical (about his own life) or not? What details from the image help support your conclusion?
- Why might details in the dancers’ clothing and headdresses be important to the artist? To the viewer? How might this drawing have been used by other members of the Cheyenne tribe?
- What questions do you have about Cheyenne dance now that you’ve looked closely at this image? How might you learn more about Cheyenne traditions?
- How does the new information you’ve learned about ledger art help you appreciate this drawing?
For further reading (teachers)
Krech, Shepard, III, “Buffalo Tales: The Near-Extermination of the American Bison,” Native Americans and the Land, Teacher Serve, National Humanities Center, published July 2001, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntecoindian/essays/buffalo.htm