Ledger Art: A Narrative of Resilience

Resilience, according to Merriam-Webster, is the capacity of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused by compressive stress. I think the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the rounding-up and squeezing Native Americans into land reservation spaces against their will, qualifies as compressive stress. Making the resilience of Native Americans, as expressed in Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains, all the more haunting and awe-inspiring. 

The exhibition is free and in its final weeks at the Museum of the American Indian, One Bowling Green, New York City. The Museum is a branch of the Smithsonian and housed inside the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. The building itself is situated on roughly the same spot as the first settlement in New Amsterdam. Fort Amsterdam was meant to defend the Dutch West India Company's fur trade along the Hudson River. In 1625, New Amsterdam was a province extension of the Dutch Republic. The Native Americans supplied them with pelts in exchange for European-made goods. 

However, Unbound does not include the Iroquois or Mohawk tribes, who were "Keepers of the Eastern Door" along the Hudson. You can learn more about these tribes and others in the Museum's main exhibition hall, which includes an expansive collection of objects, photographs, and media covering the entire Western Hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. 

Unbound focuses on the Tribes of the Plains. The Great Plains is the broad expanse of flat land, much of it covered in prairie, steppe, and grassland, that lies west of the Mississippi River. The area covers parts but not all of the following states: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Minnesota, Texas, Wyoming, Iowa, and the Canadian Provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Curated by Emil Her Many Horses, Unbound traces the evolution of narrative art from historic hides, muslins and ledger books to a wide selection of contemporary works by Native artists, the majority commissioned by the Museum exclusively this exhibition. 

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House

Balcony view of Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House built 1901-07.

Timely, Indeed.

Recently, The New York Times reported that 280 Native American tribes gathered in Near Cannon Ball, North Dakota in what activists called "the largest, most diverse tribal action, perhaps since Little Bighorn." (Also known as Custer's Last Stand.)

The tribes of the Great Plains are protesting a pipeline that they fear will contaminate the river and their water supply. Given the lackluster federal and state government attention to the water crises in Flint, Michigan, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Huntsville, Alabama, just to name a few, the tribes in North Dakota make an important point. Not to turn this post into a rant, but clean water is a precious resource, one that we cannot afford to take for granted.

Unbound is organized in four sections. Introduction, From Past to Present, Warrior Art, and Contemporary Expressions. In this post, I share my favorite pieces and reflections from two separate visits to the Museum. 

Tribes protest water pipeline

Photo: PRI.org


Buffalo hide shows horse raids

In Native American culture, the human world and the natural world co-exist. According to Larry Littlebird, author of Hunting Sacred: Everything Listens, hunting is a sacred act. When the buffalo is slain, the hunter is grateful for the animal's sacrifice.

As a result of this sacrifice, the hunter's community will be nourished and clothed. The buffalo's hide makes an excellent canvas for storytelling. On this particular hide, the stories are about stealing horses.  Whenever I give my presentation about horse mythology, one of my great passions, most people do not realize that in the Americas, horses were extinct two million years ago. Native Americans came to know the horse from their interactions with European explorers. 

Native American Blackfoot mythology refers to the horse as Pono-Kamita, which translates to English as "Elk Dog." The Elk was their point of reference. In another example, Lame Deer, a Sioux Medicine Man, explains: "we have no word for the strange animal we got from the white man--the horse. So we called it sunka waken, "holy dog." 

Ledger Art as a Medium for Storytelling 

"As life on the Plains changed, artists used pictorial storytelling to record the past and preserve the future," according to the Exhibition Fact Sheet. In other words, after the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876), the U.S. government completed its relocation of Native Americans to reservations. The Museum designates the Reservation Period as 1870 to 1920. 

As an aside, you might be wondering, as I was, about how and when the U.S. government issued formal apologies to Native Americans. Here's an interesting article from the Indian Country Media Network. 7 Apologies Made to American Indians

Ledger Art is testimony to the human spirit, which seeks any available medium for self expression. As you see from the thumbnail, artists took used government-issued ledgers and transformed them into vehicles for telling stories about love, community, and war. ​

Artists use colored pencils, gold marker, ink, graphite, and glue. ​Notice the ledger's date (1895) in the upper-righthand corner. I took this thumbnail from Grand Entry, 2012 by Darryl Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux, b. 1967). 

Ledger Art Detail

Detail from Grand Entry, 2012 by Darryl Growing Thunder. (Assinboine/Sioux, b. 1967)

From Past to Present

In the first drawing, notice that the horses appear to have Elk antlers growing from behind their ears. This is the confluence of the mythical and the reality. 

Here we have the charms of love. The woman is on her way to fetch water with her bucket when she is surprised by a suitor playing a flute. The number of horses behind him indicates his interest in marrying her.

​In the second drawing, four of the five women hold fans suggestive of the stars and stripes of the American flag. The woman in the center holds a parasol in one hand. Native Americans often traded goods with the Europeans in exchange for parasols. In her other hand, she holds her handbag with a U.S. flag depicted on it. 

Ledger Art Courtship

Drawing of a Courting Scene, 2012. Norman Frank Sheridan Sr. (Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho, 1950 - 2014)

Ledger Art Independence Day

Independence Day Celebration, 2012. Lauren Good Day Giago. (Arikara/Hidatsa/Blackfeet/Plains Cree, b. 1987)

Independence Day Celebration, 2012 by Lauren Good Day Giago is based on historical photographs of Fourth of July celebrations on the Fort Berthold Reservation. "My people weren't allowed to do our traditional dances. They would allow us to come out, dance, and be together as a people on Independence Day, " Giago says. 

Warrior Art

Choosing a favorite piece to share with you from this part of the exhibit is difficult. I'm drawn in by the majesty, magic, and unique energy of each artist. 

For me, Mountain Chief, 2012 by Terrance Guardipee (Blackfeet, b. 1968) gallops throughout the exhibition and captures all that is sacred in storytelling. ​

Guardipee depicts renowned Blackfeet warrior Mountain Chief with a fallen foe and two captured horses. His own mount is lavishly illustrated with symbols. On the front legs alone are a yellow disc symbolizing the Creator Sun, red dots representing the strength of the horse, yellow markings indicating accomplishments, and pyramids that signify mountains, which are considered the Backbone of the World. (from Museum note)​

Mountain Chief, 2012 by Terrance Guardipee (Blackfeet, b. 1968)

Contemporary Expressions

It is not possible to change the past, but it is possible to shape the future. Two pieces by Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota, b. 1971) charge forward. "I intentionally distort portraits because people have a distorted understanding of Native people. As artists and keepers of culture, we have a responsibility to promote the truth," Pappan says. 

Ledger Art

Wah Zha Zhe Creation, 21st Century Ledger Drawing No. 54, 2012 by Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota, b. 1971) 

Drawn as solid dots inside circles, stars form the background of this portrait of Chief Bacon Rind, one of the last of the Osage chiefs. The stars reference the Wah Zha Zhe, or Osage, creation story about people stepping down from the stars. (from Museum note)​

Ledger Art

Culture Crossroads, 21st Century Ledger Drawing No. 55, 2012 by Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota, b. 1971)

Based on an old photograph, the drawing depicts a seated man and his mirror image coming together to create what Pappan refers to as a third eye. The image represents two ideas, cultures, or identities coming together to create something new. (from Museum note)​

A Light Touch

In a profile of artist Dwayne Wilcox for the Heritage Center, he said this about his work: "A lot of the images I do are a reflection on how Native people view the outside world rather than how somebody might be looking at us and putting us under a microscope so they can write a book about us from their perspective. I want to show our perspective, from the inside, looking off the reservation."

In this drawing, the dance contestants check their smartphones prior to their performance. The title for this piece is a play on words. W​ánci (pronounced ONE-g) is the Lakota word for the number one. 4G Better Than One-G shows how new technology is present in Native life. 

Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains

4G Better Than One-G, 2012 by Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala Lakota, b. 1954)

Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains closes December 4, 2016 at the Museum of the American Indian. Don't miss it. This exhibition is extraordinary in its beauty and in the subtle ways it challenges the viewer to think about history and the way forward. 

Melissa A. Rosati

Melissa A. Rosati, CPCC, is a career strategist to writers, independent scholars and academics. An award-winning publisher, Melissa has acquired nonfiction titles and led editorial teams for HarperCollins, Van Nostrand Reinhold and Routledge in New York, and served as editorial director for McGraw-Hill International based in London.

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