American Indian Narratives in Picture Form

American Indian Narratives in Picture Form

Please download pdf file.

American Indian Narratives in Picture Form By EVE M. KAHN APRIL 21, 2016

Kiowa ledger art from the 19th century at the National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan. Credit Zotom, Ernest Amoroso, via National Museum of the American Indian Tattered pages from 19th-century ledger books, which American Indians used to record tribal history in picture form, have been dispersed on the market. With the loose pages no longer in their intended sequences, the graphic narratives of battles, courtships, disease outbreaks, ceremonies and imprisonments have become unintelligible. The artists’ identities and the tribes depicted have also been obscured.

In the last few years dealers, collectors and academics have been trying to restore order to ledger drawing sets by reassembling book pages.

When an intact ledger surfaces for sale, said Ross H. Frank, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, “market forces will break it up unless there’s active intervention” from an institution or a collector to keep it whole. The colorful sheets can sell for tens of thousands of dollars each.

Mr. Frank runs a website,, that has posted dozens of digitized books and has dozens more in the works. The website lists provenances for the sketches, which were made by Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota and Kiowa tribespeople.

A private collector now owns a ledger that sold in 2013 for $185,000 at Sotheby’s in New York; a Cheyenne chief had given it in 1864 to a white boy named Ambrose Asher. The library at the University of California, San Diego, has acquired an album of Lakota drawings assembled in the 1880s, with “Indian Autographs” embossed on its cover; it originally belonged to a Dakota Territory mining heiress, and sold for $34,365 at Skinner auction house in Boston in 2009.

Mr. Frank said ledgers “keep turning up in the hands of families,” typically descendants of 19th-century soldiers, merchants, missionaries, settlers and tourists who acquired the drawings from the artists as gifts or souvenirs.


Cheyenne ledger art from the 19th century in “Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains.” Credit Bear's Heart, Carmelo Guadagno/National Museum of the American Indian “Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains,” an exhibition at the Manhattan location of the National Museum of the American Indian, contains versions of ledger art drawn on animal hides, tepees, clothing and fabric, as well as intact books. The Cheyenne warrior Bear’s Heart produced one of the volumes in the 1870s, while imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Fla. He portrayed fellow captives, including women and children, as they marched in uniform, sat through sermons and posed for photographs. He also sketched the trains that had taken them to Florida, and the passing scenery of bridges, hotels and churches.

During a tour of “Unbound,” the curator Emil Her Many Horses pointed out details on sketches of shields, headgear and banners, as well as horse branding marks that help scholars identify artists and subjects. He noted the dynamic elements of the art: bullets spray, cannons fire, buildings burn and warriors smoke pipes while praying for battle success.

The exhibition also includes works by contemporary artists who use antique ledger paper. On their tableaus of hunters, lovers, dancers and tourists, ghosts of printed and handwritten words record voter registrations, railroad company expenses, real estate deeds and waitress salaries.

Donald Ellis, a tribal art dealer in Manhattan, is taking about 70 ledger drawings to an exhibition opening on June 3 at the Gisela Capitain gallery in Cologne, Germany. Mr. Ellis said that he and his clients have set out to save intact books. They are also tracking down pages long separated, including Cheyenne ledger drawings that belonged to the actor Vincent Price. (Part of that collection has been posted on Mr. Frank’s website.)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art, among other institutions, have been acquiring the works. Yale’s extensive holdings include a set of Kiowa drawings from around 1880 that sold in 2009 for $20,315 at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. A ledger book at Harvard with six artists’ depictions of battlefield scenes is the subject of a recent study, “A Lakota War Book From the Little Bighorn: The Pictographic ‘Autobiography of Half Moon.’” The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard is displaying drawings from the book; and through May 9, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is exhibiting the Lakota warrior Red Horse’s drawings of carnage that he witnessed at Little Bighorn.

On May 6, in a tribal art auction, Skinner will offer a photograph of a prominent 19th-century ledger artist, Rain in the Face, a Lakota chief, with an estimate of $250 to $350.

Correction: April 27, 2016 An earlier version of a picture credit with this column omitted the imprisoned Cheyenne warrior who produced an image of ledger art in the 1870s. He was Bear’s Heart.

A version of this article appears in print on April 22, 2016, on page C27 of the New York edition with the headline: Reassembling Ledgers From American Indians.