Conflict, Accommodation & Adaptation

The concept of creating beauty is basic to our human makeup. From the beginning of time, humans have always surrounded themselves with objects of beauty of their own creation, from their simplest functional tools to massive cave paintings created under very imposing conditions. When one studies the art and the artistic explosion, which occurred during the 19th century on the Plains of North America, we have to marvel.  Both physical and political conditions make this outburst of creativity during the 19th century difficult to imagine. The nomadic lifestyle with its need for total organization caused objects of beauty to have specific shape or function. There was continual change occurring in the world of the Plains Indian at this time. The barrage of information from the Anglo world with all the physical inter-change and the introduction of new materials brought by the fur traders and explorers, brought so much new information to the tribes. The westward expansion of the Anglo society into the plains brought change at every level. The time period was less than one hundred years, but the change was gargantuan. The introduction of information and new materials to the culture of the Plains Indian began a change from utilitarian embellishment to decorative enhancement of almost every item. Decoration, which was very tribally distinct, was a very important aspect in each and every item. This included painting, incising, carving, quilling, weaving and beadwork. 

Anyone could readily identify the group who made an object just from the design elements and construction. Today these objects are very desirable not for there original function but for the artistic beauty that pervades each object. To better understand the artistic changes of the 19th century one has to also take into account the outside influences that occurred alongside, against, and for those changes. The trade items brought with the white culture were significant to the artistic explosion throughout the century. These items such as beads, thread, commercial paint, fabric, metal and mirrors changed everything very rapidly. Women Indian artists were very quick to adapt these new materials to their own very established vocabulary of artistic tools, all the while maintaining their own tribal design significance and information. 

Every object needed to be easily stored, accessed and moved. Parfleche (Native American rawhide containers) were so important to a household. Everything had its place. Some Parfleche envelopes were used to store dried meat, others clothing, others were used for various household materials and utensils. Other object specific cases were made and decorated. Most of the Parfleche were made as pairs and decorated likewise by being cut and painted from the same large rawhide. To have pairs of envelopes today is very desired as most of the pairs have been broken up either by attrition or sold individually at some point in time. The geometric painting of Parfleche by the plains peoples was a woman’s art form. Today, Parfleche are viewed as art which hold their own when viewed next to 20th century geometric abstract paintings. Condition is very important element when collecting Parfleche. The imagery should be in good condition without too much paint loss. One of the prime collecting concerns for the Parfleche collector is what type of hide was used. Buffalo was the earliest rawhide used, the next generation were made using cattle rawhide. I see collecting Parfleche as collecting works of art, rather than ethnographic objects from a specific time period. I believe viewing through an artistic lens when collecting any 19th century Native American object is the most intelligent choice for any collector. 

Beads were the singular most significant Anglo artistic product introduced to the Plains artisans as trade items. Beads allowed for more experimenting both with color and design when decorating clothing and storage bags. Pony beads came first to the hands of the Plains artisans in the early part of the 19th century with limited colors available and also somewhat limited supply. Next came the introduction of the seed bead by mid century. All of the pony and seed beads were imported and traded from Italy until the late 19th century when Czech beads entered the plains. The seed bead spurred the creation of the most beautiful and intricate objects for wear and use that can be imagined. 

These beaded objects stand out not only because of the incredible creativity but also the outstanding beauty during this very difficult time period. Constant need to move camp, the ever vigilant need to be aware of hostilities during the Indian war period, and the abject poverty of the reservation period did not provide the most optimum working conditions. The need and desire to create beauty prevailed with these talented women.

There is an area of study involving the time certain beads enter the tribal culture, how long those colors were used before being replaced by the next years color, and which colors were preferred by which tribes artists or who preferred this for background colors or which tribes used which colors in their object field color relationships. Certain colors preferred by these women artists in the 19th century are not popular to the collector today, which says nothing about the artistic merit only the fickle nature of the market. I find the 1870-1880s time period to be the zenith of the artistic outburst of the Plains Indian artists with their adaptation of the newer materials and the expanded visual representations with more pictorial representation. By the early reservation period the native women artists were expanding their creative horizons rapidly as artists with both the adaptation of materials and the somewhat more sedentary lifestyle.

American Indian art is always alive with the soul of the native woman artist who created the object. Just as with todays clothing, styles change. The American Indian objects decorated with beadwork and or paint were and are an ever-changing art form. The desire to create beauty remains a constant human pursuit. 

Pony-Beaded Sioux Dress, c1850's

Crow Woman's Beaded Knife Sheath, c. 1880's

Crow Parfleche, c. 1880's

Crow Possible Bag, c. 1870's

Cheyenne/Arapaho Dress, c.1890's

Lakota Soft Cradle, c.1880's

Amos Bad Heart Bull

Amos Bad Heart Bull was an amazing man with an amazing story to tell.

Crazy Horse was his cousin, He Dog and Short Bull, two illustrious war leaders were his uncles and his own father, Bad Heart Buffalo was a warrior and the tribal Winter Count keeper. Big shoes to fill and he did it his own way, with his art.

He Dog

  He Dog  (1928)

He Dog (1928)


Grant Short Bull (3rd from the left) 1891 Pine Ridge

Grant Short Bull (3rd from the left, up close of previous image)

Eagle Lance, his personal name, was born around 1869 and grew up as a traditional Sioux boy, still experiencing a native free roaming nomadic life style centered on buffalo hunts and intertribal wars with an increasing struggle against the encroachment of the whites on Sioux land. He was too young to be part of the 1870’s Indian Wars, but nonetheless was present with his family at the village on the Little Big Horn River on June 1876 when the 7th Calvary attacked.

Shortly after the early death of his father, he took the name Amos Bad Heart Bull and was then raised by his paternal uncles, He Dog and Grant Short Bull. Even though he also died at a young age in 1913, we are fortunate that his uncles lived long lives and gave first hand, personal and accurate accounts of Amos’ life and character. According to them, young Amos was  kind and very attentive particularly to the life and traditions of his people. With no formal education and self-taught in art, he followed his father’s path as an artist and keeper of his people’s history. He even learned the written Lakota language created by early missionaries. Being so eager to learn, it enticed his relatives to relate to him long and detailed accounts of wars, battles, ceremonies, rituals and others activities. It soon became apparent to him that the traditional Winter Count calendar was too limiting and inadequate to record the complexity of his society, past and present. He became the artist-historian of the Plains.

Using the well known pictographic genre of Ledger Art, he embarked on the ambitious task of what some have called “being the Herodotus of the Sioux.” He did it on his own accord, at the request of no one and from the Indian point of view.

This talented, gifted and inventive artist diligently worked on his Opus Magnum for over 20 years while experiencing, as the rest of his people, the chaotic, traumatic and destructive transition to confinement on reservation. He hired as a scout at Fort Robinson and witnessed the Ghost Dance phenomena and its consequences at Wounded Knee. He also became a cattle rancher, maybe in an attempt to better assimilate into the dominant society, while still recording in a very native fashion the transformations taking place around him and the effects of this assimilation forced onto his folks.

Amos passed away in his mid 40’s on August 3rd, 1913.

The amazing story around this great artist resurfaces in 1926, when a young graduate student researching material of Indian Art, found out about his drawings now in the guardianship of his sister, Dollie Pretty Cloud. In keeping with the amazing, no one was ever able to acquire the ledger book from the family, but were only allowed to ”rent” it for a small fee! So, Helen Blish the graduate student, kept going back to Pine Ridge, for several years between 1927 and 1940, to “rent” the document for study at the University of Nebraska.

The book was finally interred with Dollie Pretty Cloud at her death in 1947.

It could be noted that fortunately (for us) but questionably (for Dollie), Hartley Burr Alexander, whom Helen Blish was studying under at the University of Nebraska, took upon himself to photograph all 415 drawings in the ledger book. Helen Blish was able to finish her thesis on the project before her premature death in 1941.

The University of Nebraska Press decided several years later to publish Mrs. Blish’s work in what is now known as “The Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux”, an invaluable document for all of us. A new edition is coming out later this month with new material and research unavailable in 1959.

But this is not the end of the story! Having all the images from the ledger in his possession, H.B. Alexander joined into the project started in 1929 by Oscar Brousse Jacobson of the University of Oklahoma, to publish original Native American Art that was becoming increasingly recognized, here and abroad, for its novelty, freshness and excellence. Six different portfolios were created and of the two dedicated to Plains Indian Art, one is exclusively devoted to Amos’ drawings. H.B. Alexander selected 25 of them, had them reproduced and hand painted after the originals. 

No one really knows how Jacobson selected this obscure, unknown workshop in Nice, France but to this day “L’Edition d’Art C. Szwedzicki” is famous for the publication of the 6 Indian Art Portfolios between 1929 and 1952!

The selection was obviously due to the high quality of their work and the specialty of their skill in the “pochoir” technique extremely popular in France in the early 1900’s for the production of quality art books by artists such as Picasso, Miro and Matisse.

“Pochoir” is a hand printing process extremely labor intensive, that uses new stencils for each color. If a print has, for example, 10 colors, it will require 10 different stencils used one at the time, therefore 10 times for each page. If a portfolio has 25 prints, it will take 250 uses of the press and if the edition is of 400 it will end up being 100,000 times!

It is not really clear how many portfolios were printed in “pochoir”, but all were produced before WWII and Amos Bad Heart Bull’s portfolio was created in 1938 in a limited edition of 400.

During the war the Szwedzicki workshop was confiscated by the Nazis and all the unsold portfolios, prints and plates were destroyed (Degenerate art?). It is thought that only half of the Plains Indian Art Portfolios made it to the U.S. and many have since been broken up and prints sold separately.

In her essay on the Szwedzicki Portfolios, Janet Berlo describes them as “precious volumes, sequestered in the rare book departments of museums and university libraries.”

Hartley Burr Alexander, in his introduction, states that Amos Bad Heart Bull “may be called a master not only of his own race but in a world sense.”

When looking at and studying the 25 images in the portfolio, one is struck by the innovative quality, skill and talent of the artist. Once Picasso said “a drawing’s intelligence isn’t simply a matter of academic technique.” The artistic intelligence of the Oglala artist is apparent throughout his work. The precision, sharpness and tension of his lines combined to his choice and use of colors, give movement and fluidity to his images. As Berlo says: “his horses move, his warriors fight!”

The composition of each scene associates several elements, view points and panoramas. Wide views infuse life and realism, near views offer details and narratives to the pictorial tales. His talent and genius reside in his effortless ability to combine at once, the pictographic conventions of his own culture and incorporate external influences without compromising the integrity of his native art, creating an authentic, original, new pictographic language. His juxtaposition of texts in Lakota to his imageries is so modern, his repetitive, all over schematic sketches of battle fields are so expressionist.

European masters were influenced by “primitive” art forms, only to create a novel, modern and undeniably European art.

The same is true for Amos’ oeuvre, it is pure, authentic, modern Sioux Art. His world views, understanding of his reality have been molded by his personal culture and his art is a representation of it. His compositions, schematics, abstraction and realism are the results of his wholesome, gifted Native American mind.

The Szwedzicki Portfolio is an astounding commendation of an artist who could have easily been lost to the world.


As a footnote: H.B. Alexander alluded to the possibility of Amos having filled THREE ledger books!

“Boys! The hunt is on!” (Robert Mitchum, “Dead Man”)

Happy Holidays.



“The Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux” Helen H. Blish

“The Szwedzicki Portfolios” Janet Catherine Berlo

“Sioux Indian Paintings, Part II” Hartley Burr Alexander


Ledger Art: Part III: War Books


The 19th century ledger art can be divided into two main groups. The earliest works have been sometimes called “War Books” by some researchers to differentiate these from the works created during the reservation period. These early “war books” were accomplished by active warriors during the Indians Wars of the 1860’s and 70’s.

One of the first mentions of Native American drawing on paper was from Lieutenant James Abert, an artist himself, who was a member of the Fremont expedition in 1845. During their stay at Bent’s Fort they interacted with a large party of Cheyenne whose Chiefs, Yellow and Old Bark, befriended him and enjoyed his drawings and in his own words, he was shown “some sketches by Old Bark’s son, in which he had represented himself killing some Pawnees with the lance. The execution was quite good and exhibited considerable feeling for design and proportion.” As a trained artist, he was fully able to appreciate the skills of this Cheyenne warrior/artist.

Another less flattering testimonial came some more than 20 years later from General Phil Sheridan after the massacre of Black Kettle’s village along the Washita River. He later wrote that the US troops had found a “ blank book with Indian illustrations of the various deviltries they had perpetrated.” Good Ol’  Phil, as a trained soldier, he was fully unable to appreciate the skills of the warrior/artist!

From that same battle we have a somewhat different description, by a newspaper correspondent, of another war book: “In the village of Black Kettle quite a voluminous account of the warlike performances of that chieftain and his warriors was taken.  It was drawn in an old daybook, which evidently had been capture … from a luckless trader on the Plains. The drawings were design to represent a war party. The soldiers of the white man were in wagons, drawn by mules. The colored troops were indeed quite artistically colored, evidently with a burnt stick. The chiefs were represented in most desperate encounters. One had as many as two soldiers impaled on the end of his spear, and had hewn down several others with his battle-axe. The Chiefs were portrayed with immense rows of feathers trailing over their heads and down their backs. They were also highly illuminated in person and attire, vermilion and blue predominating. This book is a valuable Indian curiosity.” Some little more artistic appreciation from the embedded news gentleman! Unfortunately we do not know if any of these books survived.

Therefore the earliest, complete war books we have are the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers Ledgers captured from Tall Bull’s village in 1869 by the Fifth US Cavalry commanded by Major Eugene Carr. Carr himself found a small pocket notebook and Lieutenant Haskins a full-size ledger book, both filled with colored drawings by Dog Soldiers. Several other War Books have been discovered or rediscovered over the past few decades and there are now over a dozen in private and institutions collections. Several of these War books were captured after battles, others were found on burial scaffolds and a few were acquired after the Indian Wars by private individuals.

Tall Bull

Northern Cheyenne, Dog Soldier Ledger, War Book

What makes a War book is its unique characteristic of being an meaningful, powerful object captured from an enemy and appropriated to fill a new, meaningful and powerful function used in common by men to record their war stories. John Gregory Bourke recorded in his monumental and invaluable diaries the comments about the war books of the Arapahoe Leader Friday: “The “war-record” books we find are not necessarily the military history of one person: pretty much nearly every boy has one which he keeps as a memento of his own prowess, but it is extremely common for intimate friends to insert in each other’s books, evidence of mutual esteem by drawing scenes from their past lives.”

In another word, each warrior in a group may have his own war book, but each one of these books is a collective experience of the group and its individual members at the same time. These war books were intended for personal and tribal use, not for the outside world. To paraphrase Castle McLaughlin, these warriors experience the events of their time through indigenous belief in warfare and indigenous social life. War and its related practices was their “raison d’etre”.

Here lay the central and most significant difference between the war books and the so called Ledger Art of the reservation period, their “raison d’etre”, war, is now gone! They have at once become "artist/warriors". The books are no longer captured objects integrated into a traditional war belief, but are now given to them for the sole purpose of drawing.

Dark Cloud

Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho Ledger, War Book

When looking at the art of the Fort Marion prisoners for example, we realize that the content is very different. As prisoners of war of the US Army, these Indian warriors wisely and prudently avoided any allusions of them killing whites! At best, to satisfy their new audience’s views and expectations of the "wild savage", they might show an intertribal fight! But no white man killing, no sir! Didn’t do it! Was not even there. Was at the bar, with Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, swapping chick stories! Ask them. You can trust them, they wouldn’t lie! Ha!

The themes and contents of the new Ledger Art is now focused toward personal, social and tribal activities such as dances, courting, hunting and even classroom attendance and military drills and training as well as sceneries. But the same keen ability that the original warrior/artists had to recall from memory details and minutia of a battle scene is still shown by the now artist/warriors. Where every specifics and technicalities of a drawn battle scene allow us today to tell what garments, weapons and horse gear was been used at that time, this same attention to details persisted during the reservation period art making. We can tell which dance or ceremony is been performed, what kind of blankets are been worn and the tribal affiliation by the particulars and fine points included in the drawings.

Little Finger Nail

Northern Cheyenne Ledger, War Book

The Ledger Art created during the reservation period by the scouts on the Indian Territory of Oklahoma tend to revert to the warfare storytelling, but limit itself mostly to intertribal battles.

As a last comment, it has been noticed that few of the Fort Marion artists, who were very prolific while in Florida, kept drawing when they came back to    Oklahoma. I guess when you become a farmer or laborer on the reservation there is not much to “draw home” about!

Little Shield Counts Coup on Two Mounted Soldiers

From the Last Bull Ledger, Northern Cheyenne War Book

See: Northern Cheyenne Painted Pictorial Buffalo Robe - Depicting Little Shield in Battle - Available for purchase through Sundog Fine Art


-The Lakota War Book, Castle McLaughlin
-Imprisoned Art, Complex Patronage, Joyce M. Szabo
-Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, Afton, Halaas, Masich
-Ledger Book from the Pamplin Collection, Bates, Khan, Lanford
-The Edwards Ledger Drawings, David Schorsch
-Warrior artists, Herman Viola
-The Dog Soldiers, Colorado Heritage 1996

Making Medicine

Southern Cheyenne Ledger, War Book

See: Making Medicine Ledger - Available for purchase through Sundog Fine Art

Ledger Art : Part II

We have seen that Plains Indians pictographic tradition has a long history going back to the prehistoric Rock Art. The Ceremonial and Biographic petroglyphs and pictographs are our earliest telltales of this narrative expression of either symbolic ideas or actual events. We also recognized that the use of perishable media, such as hides and wood, must have been widely spread even thousand of years ago. The Biographic tradition was mostly expressed on hides, whether robes, shirts or tipis, throughout the protohistoric and early historic time, but took a new path with the arrival of the Euroamerican  population on the Western Plains. Paper was introduced and readily accepted by Native warrior/artists to expand their narrative pictorial story-telling tradition. With paper came also new drawing utensils such as pens and pencils, opening new horizons for their pictographic representation.

The first known use of paper, pen, pencil and even water color dates back to the early 1830’s when first Catlin, then Bodmer, enticed two already prolific Mandan warrior/artists, Four Bears and Yellow Feather, to try their hands at the new implements. We do not know if earlier explorers gave paper to Indian artists before that, but it took another few decades for the wider use of paper to become common.

Epic picture writing was a favorite of the warriors to tell and advertise their combats and other warrior’s deeds and it was often done soon after their victorious return to the village. We know of a painted buffalo robe, taken by members of the US army from a defeated village, representing a battle that this same unit had had a few days earlier against that Indian group.

Ledger books were an ideal medium for the nomadic people of the Plains, light and compact it could easily be stowed away and carried from camp to camp. What is called today Ledger Art defines any Native Art on paper whatever kind it is. A lot of the early books were certainly obtained through raids as several examples are books or diaries used by their original white owners. Many account ledgers, journals and army rosters with previous entries in English, were used and drawn over, as well as some commercially printed catalog and even a bible! Not only the paper was sought after, but the mere act to acquire, as a war trophy, an object that belonged to your enemy, was an ancient custom. Many nonliterate Indians view the white’s writings, documents and books as having supernatural powers, so taking and using these objects was a strong spiritual victory empowering the triumphant warrior. According to Colonel Dodge, in the 1860’s “…many warriors keep a book in which their acts are thus recorded.”

Paper, pens and pencils gave the opportunity to the Native artists to expand their artistic skills and creativity. Like the ancient Biographic scheme, the Ledger Art is also principally a depiction of war deeds, with a few hunting and courting scenes. From a large canvas, a rock cliff or a buffalo hide, the artist had to alter his art to fit the smaller size of the books. The multi scenes and acts spread on a hide was no longer feasible and he was forced to tell the whole story in one single frame. Keeping with the Native pictorial tradition, the scene is still floating on the page, with no foreground, background or horizon confining its space.

The ledger books are often used horizontally, with the spine as the bottom of the drawing. The scenes are mostly read from right to left, with the dominant figure on the right and are also predominantly bilateral, meaning that two figures or actors, or two groups of figures or actors are interacting with each other. It can be a chase, moving from right to left, where the warrior/artist is pursuing his enemy, killing him or touching coup. Or he is stealing horses, herding them away in front of him, or hunting a buffalo, or the buffalo, now on the right side of the page, is goring horse and rider! The action can also be moving toard the center, two warriors facing each other in hand to hand combat, the cavalry charging mounted warriors, the grizzly facing the hunter, the dancers going back and forth in rhythm or two lovers wrapped in a blanket.

Many artistic conventions are used to illustrate mixed chronology and action in time and space. The C symbol for horse’s hooves, showing where and when horses went, dotted lines for foot tracks of the warrior’s activity. The page can be covered with dots and lines or arrows to show that the warrior/hero survived an onslaught of enemy bullets or arrows. A foe can be shown with a bow or quirt on his head and two arrows on his back at the upper right corner of the page, while the subject is counting coup and shooting another victim, telling of him killing two enemies. Countless others conventions are used to tell the story, stack of weapons to show how many were stolen, a hand over a figure for counting coup, several horse heads and many hoof symbols for a successful horse stealing raid, a line encircling a human form to show him hiding in a pit, surrounded or hidden behind a palisade! And of course there is the name glyph that would reveal the identity of the creator of the art or others in the scene. The imagination of these artists is limitless but always understood by their native audience

Next time we will look at more details of some famous Ledger Books.


“Lakota War Book” Castle McLaughlin
“Cheyenne Dog Soldiers” Afton, Halaas, Masich
“Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935” Janet Berlo
"A Cheyenne Ledger Book History” Colorado Heritage Autumn 1996

Ledger Art : Part I

The Native American form of representative art known today as “Ledger Art”, or any form of art done on paper, has its origins in the pre-historic Native Ceremonial Art Tradition still available to us in the numerous ancient Rock Art sites throughout the Plains region of North America and beyond.

These Ceremonial Art images were predominantly humans and animals figures, carved or painted alone or in small, juxtaposed groups. Depicted in rigid, frontal forms, lacking action or a sense of united scenes, these figures documented the religious and symbolic beliefs of Plains Indians, associated with vision quests and shamanic practices. They were of 3 majors types, the shield-bearing warriors, the rectangular stand alone human figures and the animals. These figures are simple and conventionalized, the shield-bearing represented by a large round shield, with the warrior being portrayed simply by stick legs and arms and a dot or small circle for the head sometime shown with a headdress. The shields are often very detailed, picturing either abstract and geometric designs or animal figures offering protective power to the shield. The rectilinear human figures are also stylized and conventional, sometimes shown with elaborate headdresses, sticks arms bent up at the elbows and occasionally holding weapons. Their bodies regularly show anatomical details, ribs, kidneys, genitalia and symbolic lifelines and often facial expressions. Like the human figures, the animals are simple and stylized, outlined by a curvilinear line, always in profile and showing identifying details such as antlers, claws or feathers.


The evolution of Ceremonial Art into, what is called Biographic Art, can already be seen in late prehistoric Rock Art, but is really prevalent in the historic pictographic tradition painted on animal hides used for war shirts, shields, tipis, robes and later drawn on ledger books.

No Ceremonial or early Biographic Art on perishable media is known today, but it is strongly suspected and almost expected, that prehistoric Native cultures decorated animal hides and other decaying materials. One strong indication for this thought, is the images of the shields on Ceremonial Rock Art that are often decorated with abstract, symbolic designs or animal spirit images, as most likely the original shields were made of hides, it therefore demonstrate the use of hides as a media for pictorial drawing, whether as shields or robes. Another clue, is that the carved human figures have also decoration that could be body paint or symbolic signs, but could very well be representation of decorated shirts. It seems obvious that prehistoric Plains Indians used more than just sandstone cliffs to execute their picture-writing art form.

Where Ceremonial Art was symbolic and meant to bring power and protection to the people,  Biographic Art depicts real events and humans involved in actual activities such as war, hunt, social and tribal episodes. The images gained in movement and fluidity, interacting with one another in scenes and actions that can be read through stylistic convention creating a picture-writing with a storyline easily interpreted by initiated people. Stylistically, the figures resemble the early ceremonial petroglyphs, shield-bearing warriors, blocky human figures, archaic, naïve animal forms and a new triangular form for the human torso is introduced. But now the figures interact with each others, creating active scenes of combat, counting coups or stealing horses. Figures facing each other in semi-profile, arms outstretched holding spears or clubs, bent over, leaning forward or backward creating action and giving life to the scenes. Horses drawn with curvilinear lines are more graceful and fluid, emanation of agility, speed and power. Riders are been pictured on horses increasing the sensation of action and mobility. The new incorporation of ideograms and pictograms such as dashed lines for human footprints, series of C shapes for horses tracks, dots or lines with dots for flying bullets creates again illusion of movement, travel within the scene and the passing of time in a unique picture frame. The story telling can be intense and detailed, narrating events that helped preserve and transmit the tribal history.

The rapid evolution of the Biographic Art form culminates in the early 1700’s through the late 19th century. Our records of this form of Native art is a lot more extensive due to the collecting habit of the first Euro-American visiting the Western Plains region. The oldest painted robes date to the first half of the 18th century and many more were acquired in the following decades as well as painted war shirts. The first known ledger drawings on paper were done by the Mandan’s warriors Four Bears and Yellow Feather who were given paper, pen, pencils and watercolor paint by Karl Bodmer in 1834. It is possible that earlier examples of Native art on paper existed but did not survived. The expansion of the use of paper did not occur until the 1860’s with the increase numbers of travelers and people moving out west. Warrior/artists were able to get paper material through trade, raid or gifts and favored this media for its ease of transportation and use.

The same evolution in style and topics happened in Ledger Art that it did in early Biographic Art. We will look at that in a coming blog. 


“Plains Indian Painting” John C Ewers
“Plains Indian Rock Art” James Keyser & Michael Klassen
“The Five Crows Ledger” James Keyser

Apache Playing Cards


The Apache playing cards are a classic example of a crosscultural artistic exchange, combining traditional pictographic representation of nontraditional design and imagery. The Apache traditional artistic interpretation were more abstract than their contemporary Western artistic tradition.

Members of the Hernan Cortes were the first to bring playing cards to the mainland America in 1519 and it took another 70 years, with Juan de Onate in 1598, for the first deck of cards to appear in the Upper Rio Grande River Valley. The local Native population being fond of gambling readily took on this new game of luck with its unusual features of shape, form and colorful design. Numerous mentions of indigenous people indulging in fierce card games have been recorded since the late 16th century.

The cards and games that the early Spanish conquerors brought with them were of the Latin Suit system, itself of an Islamic origin, common in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Sailors and soldier adventurers were avid gamblers so much so that the church and Spanish crown tried to prohibit the export of playing cards to the New World. Like most prohibition it did not work and the government did the next best thing that all government do, if you cannot stop it, tax it!

Overtime, from the traditional Spanish games, evolved new, authentic games of which the Mexican Monte was the most popular, certainly with the Native people.

This game is simple and easy to learn. Very little strategy, scheme and tactic is involved, the only required “skill” is a fascination with Lady Luck!

The set has 40 cards broken down into 4 suits: coins, swords, clubs and cups each of 10 cards with 3 figures, King (Rey), Knight (Caballero) and Page (Sota) and 7 numerals, ace through 7.


In a simplified version of the game, one player is the banker or house, he lays 2 cards face up keeping the rest of the pack face down. The other players place their bets on either card, gambling that the card coming off the bottom of the pack is of the suit bet on! That's it! A winner gets a 1 to 1 return and the banker scoops up all the losing bets. The quickness of the game is also part of the attraction.

No one really knows when the first Native made playing cards were created, but most of the records seem to indicate that the majority of the packs in collections today are from 1825 to 1900.

When unable to trade or buy paper cards from the Europeans, the Indians made theirs out of animal skin and decorated them to imitate the imagery of the Mexican cards. They did not try to copy the style, only keeping the essence of it they painted the cards within their own traditional artistic customs and worldviews.

Most, if not all of the known sets of cards indicate an Apache creation. Even the ones collected from other tribes look Apache. No one, so far, has been able to explain why other tribe did not make them too.

Our subject set of cards comes from a private collection. It has 37 rawhide cards made of what some “experts” believe to be pig skin. I’m not sure if they were experts in skin or cards! The cards are all roughly cut to the same size (3 1/2” x 2 1/4”) with rounded corners. Overtime they acquired a curved shape that would make it hard to shuffle! They are in excellent condition with a nice, rich patina.

The first 3 suits, cups, swords and coins are complete, where the fourth one, clubs is missing the knight, page and number 6 cards. The graphic style is an exemplary traditional form rendering the essence of the subject in a stylized, minimal figurative pattern.

The court cards are characteristic of a Apache traditional art. Blocky bodies with stick arms and legs, round or triangular head without facial features but each is easily differentiated. The Kings, wearing richly decorated overcoats on Spanish cards, are shown by Apache artists as long rectangles with elaborate decoration, no legs, short arms. The Knight is on a horse, of course, with square, colorful body and more defined arms and a leg showing under the horses bellies. The Pages have more define arms and legs, also wearing elaborate shirts. Two of them are wearing what has been identified as cartridge belts, illustrated by a thick horizontal line at the junction of the body and legs.

An interesting feature to notice is that only the cup king is wearing a crown, but one page is also wearing one. Obviously the Apache artist, being from a more egalitarian society and culture had no problem using a status and power symbol of a foreign culture on distinct figures!

The numerical cards are also very stylized and symbolic. The swords and clubs differentiate by the addition of spikes on the clubs. Our suit of club is somewhat inconsistent in its imagery, the King and 7card could be confused for swords when the other numerals don the characteristic spikes. Were they from another pack? Hard to tell. The rawhide is identical to the rest of the set so is the style and decoration, we’ll certainly never really know.

This particular artist did not outline any of the figures in black. His palette consist of bright, vibrant blue, yellow, red, orange and a little bit of white for the page of coins cartridge belt. This beautiful, rare set of Apache playing cards is a typical example of a 19th indigenous folk art adaptation of an alien object.


A Curated Moment

I love this quote.  It is from the blog Brain Pickings.

‘ “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence,” Toni Morrison wrote in her electrifying piece on the artist’s duty at times of crisis. That refusal can take many forms, but at its richest, it is more than mere resistance — it is, rather, a commitment on behalf of the artist to serve not only truth but beauty by remaining in contact with the timeless and the eternal; to fortify us against the urgencies of a turbulent present and embolden us to transcend our primal reflex of fear, so that we may lift not only our spirits but the whole of our consciousness and continue to evolve toward a more humane humanity. This has always been the duty of the artist, and fragments of it can be found in every single work of art that has endured and has helped humanity endure over millennia of tumult.’ - Brain Pickings

 Maynard Dixon painted his time.  He painted a changing and disappearing world, yet I think he would recognize a lot of what remains, if he drove out past the sprawl, into the land, he would see the same plateaus, sage brush and high arrogant clouds.   

This is the land I was born in and it speaks to my soul.  The vast breadth of the West gives my eyes room to see the changing landscape. I want to be witness to the place and the time I live in,, to depict its transcendent beauty, its stubborn bones, its highways and byways.  I want to capture an honest impression, one that I see.  The truth is neither exclusively beautiful nor exclusively dark.  It is in the balance somewhere and that balance is tipped depending on the moment in time.  Some moments are stunning beyond expression, some darker than it feels possible to comprehend.  It is worth the trials and tribulations of our lives to experience the perfect moments.  Walter Pater once said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”   There is enough candy-coated imagery out there, the pop music of pretty.    Then there is the occasional voice that can hit all the notes with a resonance of honey that forces you to remember that perfection cannot last, but for this moment it is a part of the world.  My language is paint.  It is how I pay homage, how I investigate, how I communicate, how I hope to add to our collective culture.  You can’t be subtle if you are in love with the world.

Representational art can have a great depth of meaning beyond and including the observation and re-creation of that which is depicted.  When you choose to spend thirty hours on an image it becomes a curated moment.  It says a lot about the artist.  What do they pass along to posterity?  There is a lot of responsibility in our choice of subject and how we portray it.  Lasting art must be part of an art historical movement and moment or it must transcend.  Art that transcends place and time is the stuff that strikes a chord, lingers in our mind, that we attach a personal value to, that we fall for.  A successful painting takes on its own meaning, often different from the one it was created with.  The work starts to move towards its own mythology and symbolism when it strikes a balance between the grand statement and the individual passion.  

I found my grand statement in the clouds.  I am obsessed with the sky.  It is the counter weight of my life.  It is an ongoing and epic concert reminding me of the greater truths of life. The clouds are movement and time translated into color and light.  Their vast abstract qualities put the narrative of the paintings into a distanced perspective.  The muscle of the land is clearly visible, sculpted by the glaciers and the lack of rain.  It is a land exposed.  A land depopulating to the cities, leaving the diners almost empty and the imagination full of wonder.  Who lived here and why?  How do you hear yourself and your dreams under such an expanse of silence?   The turbulent sky is both an arena for distraction, meditation and reprieve from the day to day, while the land and our small existence on it pull me back to the stories hinted at in a pair of headlights in the waning light. 

Cheyenne Dog Soldier Society Robe

The Cheyenne “Hotametaneo’o”, literally Dog-Men, were called Dog Soldiers by the 19th century white population of the Plains region. One of the six major Cheyenne military societies, the Dog Soldiers Society slowly became the most powerful by the mid 1800’s. They were the elite military leaders also in charge of the tribal discipline, community hunts and ceremonies. So powerful and aggressive were the Dog Soldiers that the Civil Council Chiefs lost all control over them. Over time they became a separate family clan from the tribe, at odds with the Peace Chiefs, such as Black Kettle and White Antelope, regarding how to deal with white intruders and the US Army. They absolutely refused to sign any treaties or entertain the thought of moving to a reservation. They were described by a reporter covering the negotiations at Medicine Lodge in 1867 as “…the awesome warriors were armed to the teeth with revolvers and bows … proud, haughty, defiant as should become those who are to grant favors, not beg them.” From a territory situated in what is now Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado, their aggressive warrior behavior was also directed toward their ancestral enemies, Comanche and Kiowa to the South, Pawnee to the East, Crow to the North and Shoshone and the Ute to the West. They kept a busy schedule!

Like other Societies, the Dog Soldier’s had its own symbols, regalia, dances and songs. Often Dog Soldiers wore their hair braided and wrapped in trade cloth as well as long nickel silver hair pieces hanging on their backs. They also often wore breast plates, either hair pipes or german silver pectoral with hanging najas. Bone Hair Pipe chockers were also very popular sometimes decorated with abalone shell. Most of the warriors carried an eagle bone whistle around their necks when going to a fight.


One of the most powerful article was the shield. Highly decorated with unique, personal and mystic symbols dedicated to the spiritual protection of the warrior. Often seen in visions, the symbols on the shield were accentuated by the addition of eagle feathers or others objects.

 Cheyenne Shield

Cheyenne Shield

Vignette of Robe

 Cheyenne Shield

Cheyenne Shield

Their weapons of choice were the bow and arrows, knives and lances, but quickly they added pistols and rifles acquired through raids and trade, yet the greatest war deed was counting coup, which was accomplished with their crooked lance, bow, quirt or coup stick. The most peculiar and symbolic item that distinguished the Dog Soldiers is the “Dog Rope”, a long hide strip or sash decorated with quillwork and eagle feathers that was either looped over the right shoulder and hanging under the left arm or secured to the breechclout belt. At the end was attached a red painted wooden pin that could be staked to the ground indicating the warrior intention to not retreat and fight to the end to protect his people. One such warrior died staked to the ground at the battle of Summit Springs in 1869.

 Dog Rope and Crooked Lance

Dog Rope and Crooked Lance

This pictorial painted buffalo robe describes a battle between Crow and Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, possibly a battle which occurred in 1863 in Eastern Montana along the Big Horn River. The narration throughout the drawings indicates the Cheyenne as the victors of this close quarters combat. The imagery is the accurate description of real people and real events. These are not random drawings, but very specific identifiable renditions of deeds and items belonging to the Dog Soldiers or the Crow warriors. For instance, the shields drawn are very obvious Cheyenne imagery. Similar examples of shields exist in museums and private collections today. In the upper right corner, the rider on the red horse is wearing a trade blanket with a magnificent Cheyenne beaded blanket strip. The warrior in the upper left is holding a society quirt, possibly third degree, while the one in the center riding the red horse with black spots, as well as the one at the bottom left, is wearing a Dog rope or no retreat sash unique to the Dog Soldier’s war tradition. On the right side, the warrior on the black and white horse wears a upright headdress and the fighter in the lower corner is using his crooked lance to count coup on a Crow victim. In the bottom center is a representation of a shield associated with Cheyenne Dog Society. An interesting weapon adopted by Dog-Men was the cavalry sword, depicted with two Cheyenne fighters in close combat. Research has shown that 17 such swords where recovered at Tall Bull’s camp after the Summit Springs battle in 1869.

 Cheyenne Blanket Strip

Cheyenne Blanket Strip

 Warrior with Sword

Warrior with Sword

 Vignette or Robe

Vignette or Robe

In each of the vignettes, we see close hand to hand combat that demonstrate the Dog Soldiers bravery and power. The horse’s bridles were also displaying the recently taken scalps, and all the horse’s tails are tied up, telling us that they had been prepared for war prior the fight. The warrior on the top row also shows his preparation, his entire body painted for war in the tradition of the Contrary warrior who were highly respected for their bravery in combat. Another interesting vignette on the top row shows a Crow warrior armed with a pistol and a Crow coupstick or crooked lance, obviously a brave fighter. Another clear indication of tribal affiliation is the representation of the classic, traditional Crow hair style, the pompadour or tied as a front top knot. Many other items are easily identified throughout the painting, weapons (rifles, muskets, blanket gun), clothing (leggings, moccasins, cape, shirts) and other imageries, but one intriguing image is on the top right corner and depicts what looks like bear paws/tracks!  Could it be the artist name glyph? We will certainly never know for sure, but there was a prominent Dog Soldier warrior named Bear Paw/Tracks!

 Rescue of Bear Tracks/Paw

Rescue of Bear Tracks/Paw

 Crow Warrior

Crow Warrior

 Contrary Warrior Ledger Drawing

Contrary Warrior Ledger Drawing

Two other clues indicate a Cheyenne artist and provenance. First the pictorial style, perhaps better than any other tribes, Cheyenne artists developed a recognizable language of images. The manner the horses were portrayed in all their art, whether on painted robes, tipi liners or ledger drawings, with their graceful movement and long legs, very specific body or hair coloration helps identify the tribal affiliation of the artist.

 Cheyenne Ledger Drawing

Cheyenne Ledger Drawing

 Vignette of Robe

Vignette of Robe

Lastly, the hide has been cut in the Cheyenne tradition, unlike the Sioux, Cheyenne would cut out around the horns and eyes leaving a narrow curved hide strip for the head. The front legs were sewn backward creating a more square hide

What’s going on here? The Quirkiness of the Navajo Weaver’s Mind

There is not much written about a very peculiar oddity done by mostly Classic and Late Classic weavers and seldom seen on Transitional and floor rugs Navajo textiles. We all have noticed and if not understood, we have accepted the weaving pattern called variegation. This is the use of different shades of wool colors; mostly brown, red and the infamous grey! Often stripes and wide bands on blankets are of a variegated color, giving them an organic, even vegetal tone and design. It is fairly easy to picture the weaver sitting in front of her loom with 2, 3 or more handspun brown or raveled bayeta skiens of yarn and choosing one or the other, alternating them as she goes along, creating a rich, deep, textured color field. Even the white stripes on Chief’s blankets are not uniform in color and acquire this same richness and texture.

This is one of the reason why these Classic textiles are so beautiful, intriguing and unique. The human and artistic touch can be read throughout the weavings, one weft at the time. Her feelings and soul are right there on her woolen canvas. Happy, sad, mad or whatever else she was feeling.

But there is something else that can often be found on these amazing Classic weavings. The “Spirit Line” is of course a common feature that has a purpose and meaning, but what about these seemingly random lines, dots or even holes found on these old blankets and sarapes? If one looks closely at them, one is almost certain to find at least one of them. We have selected a few of these intriguing, “quirks” of Navajo weavings.

Here, on a Classic 3rd Phase, is a short strand of red bayeta yarn incorporated into the variegated field of brown! Why? What is the meaning of such a sign? Is there a meaning? It is obvious that it is not an accident, it was put there on purpose, for a reason, whatever it might be.  


On this same blanket, we can see this faint dark line within a white stripe. Why did she add this brown yarn in there? It looks like a zip on Barnett Newman painting “The Voice” 1950, his a vertical zip, hers a horizontal one, but so similar in visual feel and sensation.


In this Late Classic Child’s Blanket, we have an example of single dots or beads and small lines spread on the red field! What was going through her mind for her to add these to her work? These are not features that seem to alter the design of the weaving but maybe they do. 


This last example is maybe the most amazing and intriguing. Holes! She deliberately created holes in the center of this Late Classic sarape! These are not breaks or repairs in the wefts, she did it on purpose, wraped some wefts around warps and left gaps! Again why? Why did she go through the trouble of doing this? Is it another form of spirit….hole to let her creativity escape? But why in the center of her work? Is there a pattern to it?


I do not have answers to these questions, but I sure enjoy finding these unusual design creations by the Navajo weavers. Maybe if one of them read this, she could enlighten us on the significance of them.

The "Necropsy" of an Art Project


Yes it is a strange way to put it, but I wanted to find out the details of the making of such a project and one option is to dissect it, therefore the necropsy! Granted, I could have called it the anatomy of an art project, I guess it’s my morbid sense of humor!

It is fairly obvious and easy to understand some of the motivations leading to Osborn's series on the cowboys of central Montana; the romance, the almost mythical stature of the cowboys, as well as the nostalgia of another, “vanishing race.”

So what about the more technical aspects of such an endeavor, like the choice of paper, the printing process, the matting and the framing? Let’s find out.

Before you even take a picture you’ve got to have a camera and Robert Osborn uses an “aging” Nikon D4, with a 24-120 Nikkor lens, because he feels that, bear with me here, “…its 16.2 megapixels image sensor produces images that sharpen incredibly well…sharper than newer cameras.” I could not have said it better! In Robert’s words again, “The Nikon D4 is a great cowboy camera.”

The choice of black and white is almost universal in photographic portraiture, conveying a dramatic feel to the images even though very few of us see in black and white, but again, many think that way! It is kind of a paradox, painters do portraits in color and photographers in black and white, when photography was suppose to, “…liberate painting from the subject” to paraphrase Picasso and photography be the ultimate imitation of nature!

The choice of paper is the result of many years of testing and comparing qualities and nuances. Robert has settled for Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta, a 315 gsm fiber inkjet paper thatin his own words “…produces gorgeous, luminous prints with a wonderfully rich contrast gamut and a semi-gloss finish that does not mark easily.” An issue with matte paper is that it scuffs easily and the marks can’t be removed. Another requirement for his choice was to find a paper containing no brighteners which give a slight pinkish cast that is OK in color prints but, “awful” in black and whites.

When it comes to matting and framing Robert has the same high standards. Matting is done with an 8 ply Crescent Cotton Rag Matboard, acid free with museum archival properties in a warm white color. The same attention to details is given to the frames. Robert chose a Neilson matte-black aluminum frame for its clean appearance, structural integrity and archival properties too. Unlike wood, aluminum is inert and will not affect paper prints and mat boards.

The frames are then fitted with Optium Museum Acrylic glazing, selected for its incredible clarity, a nearly invisible anti-reflective coating and 99% UV protection.

Of course being cowboys, size matters! Most of the studio portraits are printed to 27 inches, but a few, “demand” to be printed to 36 inches! But again, didn’t they put John Wayne on a stamp?

Well, at the conclusion of this fun “necropsy” the result is that this Art Project is still alive and kicking!

So come on down to the gallery to check it out and enjoy the art.

May Day

May 1st, a paradox of human psychological behavior! While more than 80 countries worldwide are celebrating the International Workers Day or Labor Day, after an event that took place in the US, the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, we, in the US, celebrate Labor Day in September for no apparent reason other than it falls roughly halfway between the 4th of July and Thanksgiving!    

May was also the month of the ancient Old World spring festival and is now the New World most pagan spring celebration, the Kentucky Derby! This is an animalistic celebration of a creature original of the western hemisphere, that got the hell out of there when another creature, the human showed up to reappear some 10,000 years later with that same featherless biped on its back!

So let us celebrate that blend of elitist pageantry and pagan debauchery with some North American Native horse art.

One of a kind master piece by a gifted artist that epitomized beauty, elegance and power.

A more subdued example on the same theme. 

What can we say, Brancusi could have carved this one!

Could hook them up at the top of the stretch.

Did not mean to make you mad.

Brilliant! Used as a tobacco board between dances.

…and was smoked in this one!

Future blogs will be dedicated to Plains Indian sculptures and will revisit these beautiful objects in our collection.

Collectors Collecting Collections

What drives and motivates seemingly normal, intelligent and rational individuals to collect all kind, any kind of things?

The psychology behind this behavior has not been deeply, seriously or scientifically studied. Thoughts and theories span from Freud’s, who seemed to have a theory about anything, to the mundane.

Freud explained the need for collecting as a result of our traumatic experience of “potty training”! It goes something like this: as little kids we are trained, in the toilet, to let go and the sight of what was once ours going down the drain was very traumatic! In a nutshell, Freud is suggesting that this loss of control and of precious and personal possessions is why some people collect … stamps!

A less dramatic speculation is that getting attached to things is a universal human response to unspecified trauma or trouble and can lead to the psychopathologic behavior known as “hoarding”, which cannot really be affiliated with the milder symptoms of simple collecting. True collectors are not that nuts! Right?

The neat thing about non-scientific studies is that anybody can come up with an idea. Here is one, the first collector/hoarder was Noah! Did he not gather 2 of each example of living animals on earth and kept them in one location?

Even though the science is at the Psychology 101 level, the names given to the different collecting disciplines are etymologically sophisticated. Everyone knows numismatic for coins or philately for stamps. But what about arctophile for collecting teddy bears, vecturist for subway tokens, or better yet, names for things we did not know were collected such as helixophile, corkscrews, or tyrosemiophile, cheese labels for Pete’s sake, and best of all entredentolignumologist for… well I’ll let you guess that one!

In the 18th century a popular elitist activity was to have a “cabinet of curiosities”, an aristocratic form of prestige, power and wealth boasting that lead to the uniquely Western society institution of the Museum.

But to most, collecting is pure enjoyment, that brings a lot of fun to one’s life by expanding knowledge, interests, skills, social interaction and connection to the past, present and future.

Looking, searching for and maybe eventually acquiring that elusive, rare object is a definite joy. But But the ultimate adventure for a collector is the “QUEST”. The search and anticipation are the ultimate, euphoric, existential elements of the perennial journey to the mesmerizing goal.

The Quest, the Opium of the collector!

Have fun!

The Fred Harvey Company

Frederick Henry Harvey was born in 1835 in London. As a 15 years old teenager he boarded, in Liverpool, a ship sailing for America, in search of a new and hopefully better life. Like millions of other immigrants, young Fred had little cash in his pockets but great dreams and ambitions in his soul.

Upon arrival in New York City he quickly found employment at the popular Smith & McNell’s restaurant as a “pot-walloper” or dishwasher. The restaurant was located across from the busy Washington Market in Lower Manhattan. McNell’s started in 1812 as a small neighborhood outdoor market bringing fresh food to urban dwellers. In a few decades the market became the largest in the city and it was all Henry Smith and Thomas McNell needed to turn the small coffee house they had bought in the early 1840’s into a high volume 1,000 seats eatery that catered to dealers, farmers and customers patronizing the busy market.

Unpretentious, inexpensive but offering fresh food and good, fast service, the restaurant operated 24 hours and was said to serve up to 10,000 meals a day!

Fred couldn’t have picked a better place to learn the restaurant trade. As a young, ambitious, hardworking immigrant, he somehow attracted the sympathy of his bosses who taught him the basics principles of the food and hospitality business. He worked his way up to bus boy, waiter and line cook before leaving in 1853 for New Orleans and then St Louis where, with a partner, he ran a profitable cafe. Unfortunately, when the Civil War broke out his partner enlisted in the Confederate Army and left town not without forgetting to take all the money they had saved! 

Broke and dejected, Harvey moved to Kansas and found employment with the Burlington Railroad for/with whom he travelled frequently and could not help noticing the despicable food and service railroad travelers had to endure and he readily found then and there his calling. What he had learned from Smith and McNell turned out to be invaluable. He opened his first Harvey House next to the rail depot in Topeka, Kansas in 1873. The pillars of his success were cleanliness, good and fresh food and brisk and efficient service. His clientele had only a 30 minute stop before the train left again, and they actually were able to eat the food they paid for at Fred’s place, which was a huge improvement on what use to happened before Harvey came to town!

In 1876 his partnership with the Santa Fe Railroad began and in a few years there was a Harvey House every 100 miles strung along the Santa Fe line.

At his death in 1901, the now Fred Harvey Company owned 42 restaurants, 16 hotels and 20 rail dining cars! The right man at the right place at the right time. But again, just as Louis Pasteur said “Luck favors the prepared minds” and that young English boy was prepared for sure. This is the background for the rest of the/his story.

After his death, Fred’s sons, daughter and her husband continued the management of the Company. The involvement of the Fred Harvey Company in the Southwest and its Native peoples was a direct consequence of the Company’s need of a steady flow of tourists customers. At the turn of the 20th century the renewed interest for the North American indigenous people combined with the beautiful and exotic sceneries of the Southwest desert offered an unusually powerful promotional tool to both the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad. What was good for one was also good for the other. The increasing number of travelers was good for the railroad, good for the Harvey houses and hotels and in addition was also good for Navajo and Hopi artists and artisans.

The epicenter and heart of the enterprise was the “Indian Department and Museum” at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the brainchild of Fred Harvey’s daughter, Minnie and her husband, JF Huckel. Its success and significance is largely due to the astute and keen collector’s eye of Herman Schweizer their “anthropologist” manager. The museum was described as “the most extensive ethnological museum in the country” and “the largest and most complete of its kind in the world”. Navajo textiles occupied a prominent place as commercial and ethnographic items. Schweizer had an extensive personal connection throughout the Navajo and Hopi artist communities as well as with the traders on the reservations, especially JL Hubbell of Ganado, who supplied most of the contemporary weavings and some rare, classic blankets too.

These were the ones Schweizer was looking for. He was very aggressive in his quest, searching, acquiring, buying, collecting and even hoarding them. He bought entire collections of Classic and Late Classic blankets and sarapes from old Santa Fe and Arizona merchants and curio owners such as A F Spiegelberg and Arthur Seligman, or from early private collectors and their estates and from one of the first Taos painters Bert Phillips. He also used the services of two questionable characters, Pedro Muniz and Juan Olivas, who reportedly "had obtained old Navajo weavings in warfare or in trade” before the 1860’s!

A telling example of the depth and broadness of their textile holdings is the famous William Randolph Hearst Collection now housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Most of the weavings were purchased from the Fred Harvey Company and the inventory is simply astonishing: 39 Chief’s blankets, 86 bayeta sarapes, 42 Child’s blankets and on and on and on! Should not be legal for one dude to own so many!

What was not sold, formed the core of the Indian Department Museum collection and was ultimately distributed between several institutions such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. Collectors and lovers of Southwest weavings and other art forms, are forever indebted to Herman Schweizer and the Fred Harvey Company for their “hoarding!” Their love, passion and maybe foresight in acquiring these old, used blankets at sometimes high prices, is the greatest legacy of the Fred Harvey Company, not the fact that it was the first restaurant chain ever created.

It is hard to imagine what could have happened to all these fabulous weavings if they had been left out there in the wild. Fortunately for us great collections are formed and often end up in public institutions for our enjoyment, enlightenment and education.


J.B. Moore and the Crystal Trading Post

During the late 1800’s, a period of severe depression on the Navajo reservation, its textile industry experienced dramatic changes that severely influenced its production. The commercialization of the handmade craft steered the demand from a mostly local and native market to a wider, national and “foreign/Anglo” one that required increased production. To meet that demand and in keeping in the buying of lower grade blankets by the pound, the traders inadvertently contributed to the deterioration of the art of weaving.

The Navajo weavers were glad to satisfy this new demand and increase their income. The traders were buying all the blankets the weavers brought in, independent of the quality. What ensued was the lowest point for the craft. The coarse wool was not properly washed, if at all, nor was the wool degreased or burrs, dirt, dust and odors removed. To top it off, this poorly cared for wool would not take the dye properly either. To speed up the process even more, traders supplied their weavers with cheap cotton cords to use as makeshift warps that would deteriorate rapidly.

What could have been easily foreseen soon came to fore, and the more discerning buyers refused to buy these inferior textiles. A few traders realized the danger of this practice and started to require quality products and workmanship.

One who even went a step further is the legendary J.B. Moore of the famed Crystal Trading Post. Contrary to the amiable, engaging and colorful J.L. Hubell, whose life is well documented, John Bradford Moore seems to have been a more reserved, business-like but also an energetic, innovative and visionary fellow.

Little is known of his personal life. Of Irish descent, he may have been born in Texas in June 1855, but spent most of his early life in Sheridan, Wyoming where he met and married a young lady, Marion Cooney, from England in 1887. Their daughter Eunice was born in 1894. There is no record of J.B. Moore’s activities in Sheridan, but he must have been somewhat successful as apparently he was elected its mayor in the early 1890’s.

He moved to the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico in 1896 and bought half interest in the trading post situated on Washington Pass on the west side of the Chuska Mountains. Later on he bought out his partner Joe Reitz for full ownership of the trading post and was from then on the sole owner.

Life as an Indian Trader in this remote mountainous region of the reservation can be harsh and lonely during the winter at 8,000 feet. To carry on his business year-round and satisfy his local clientele, J.B. Moore bought and freighted in enough supplies for several months when snow would prevent any transportation. In his own words “…it is also our mission here to buy any and everything the Navajo has to sell…(wool, pelts, farm products, surplus of his flocks, cattle and horses)… And, it is also our purpose to sell him in turn, all the supplies, groceries, dry goods, clothing, wagons, harness and saddles, everything in fact he has need for and the money to buy with …”

He did establish a good relationship with the local Navajo population and slowly, with perseverance and determination he was able to convince his weavers, rooted in tradition, to produce nicer, finer but unconventional textiles. To help them achieve excellence Moore and his wife would oversee the cleaning of the fleeces and would even ship the best wool back east to mills for industrial cleaning and dyeing that he would give to his best weavers. His influence was also significant with the designs he introduced. Still somewhat traditional early on, with striped borders and fields of interlocking serrated diamonds reminiscent of classic serapes, he soon conceived more complex, multiple elaborate borders of frets, hooks, wavy lines and other figurative elements surrounding a central field of bold interlocking and connected crosses, diamonds, octagons and other alien figures evocative of oriental rugs becoming very popular.

These readymade designs were very helpful to the skilled but less creative, original weavers, “not all good weavers are good designers.” But J.B. Moore was quick to acknowledge his gifted, ingenious and inventive women and he gave credit to several of them for some of the most recognizable Crystal style designs. He and maybe more so these Navajo women weavers, have had a monumental influence on the emergence of some of the most known regional styles such as Two Grey Hills, Teec Nos Pos and Storm Pattern.

 Conception, innovation, newness and acquisition of the material are to a degree the easiest half of the equation, and J.B. Moore was equally talented and shrewd at the other half, finding or even creating a new market, in another word: “selling!”

His mail order catalogues may not have been the first ones, but still they were highly successful profitable for him and his weavers. After the publication of the second catalogue in 1911, Moore and his wife abruptly left, without a trace, in the fall of that year for what some sources claimed was due to a scandal he was not to be blame for??? Riiiight! So is life on the rez. No matter what, as Marian Rodee said, J.B. Moore “…was instrumental to changing Navajo weaving from blanket to rug.”

The Emergence of Navajo Regional Weaving Styles

After Bosque Redondo, the Navajo came back to their beloved ancestral homeland but had to rebuild their sheep flock and wool supply. They acquired and traded yarns with the newcomers to their land, the Anglo, government licensed traders, who were spreading across the newly formed reservation.

The influence of the trading posts on the social and cultural life on the reservation grew over the years and brought many changes to the people and their native weaving industry. Several parallel events slowly merged to create a world and birth place, to a metamorphosed traditional art. When the Classic wearing blanket became obsolete, the imagination and ingenuity of the Indian traders gave birth to the floor rug that this new breed of Easterners, the tourist, was in desperate need of! The perennial perfect storm. Some of the most influential traders were the early partners Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, C.N. Cotton and later J.B. Moore.

Juan Lorenzo was born in 1853, in Prajito, outside Albuquerque, New Mexico to a Hispanic mother and an Anglo father. After working at an early age as a post office clerk, the 17 years old Juan succumbed to the romance of the West, bought himself a horse and a saddle and headed to the still wild and untamed Utah Territory. No one knows for sure, but the “Hubbell’s legend” has it that young Juan seduced a Mormon girl and seduced her so well that the local Mormon bishop wanted him to marry the girl and her sisters! That prospect did not appeal to Juan who decided to skip town instead. With a posse sent after him he barley survived his quick exit, and found himself south of the Grand Canyon in the safer Navajo Reservation with two gunshot wounds.

Here he honed his trader’s skills working as a clerk at Indian posts before acquiring his own first trading post in 1876. Two years later, he bought what would become the famous Hubbell Trading Post in Pueblo Colorado Valley, soon renamed Ganado after the Navajo leader Ganado Mucho, a close friend of Juan Lorenzo.

This young and ambitious man slowly built up an ”empire,” owning some two-dozen trading posts throughout the reservation, as well as freight and mail lines services and warehouses. Early on, Hubbell partnered with his good friend C.N. Cotton, who managed the post at Ganado while he was on duty as sheriff in St Johns, Utah some 90 miles away. Both of them were astute and fair traders who built a successful relationship with the Navajo people.

The early and mid 1880’s were years of transition for the Navajo weaving industry. The market for wearing blankets was slowly changing and disappearing. Hubbell’s store housed hundreds of these beautiful blankets, way more than their actual market could handle. They were still only wholesaling to suppliers of mining camps and others Indian reservations across the country. They were at this time only advertising the blankets as durable, utilitarian products able to stand the harsh treatment of rural life. Sturdy and large enough for a bed, they never mentioned the beauty of these blankets. In an 1884 letter to a client in Custer, Montana, Cotton inquired about buying buffalo robes and lion skins and selling wearing blankets.

Soon our two traders thought of a new market, the East Coast and its more affluent population to turn blankets into household objects. Starting in the 1880’s, an antimodernist movement spread in the East and Europe in reaction to the new modern lifestyle. Imagine that,  the public concern with immigration, industrialization, labor unrest and world war fueled a nostalgia for the past! A cosmopolitan world looking for its roots in what was viewed as a primitive and pure culture. History repeats itself? Naaaw.

The Southwest became the embodiment of what antimodernist were looking for, natural beauty and primitivism. The Native people, with the help of Indian traders were more than happy to satisfy this new existential need.

Hubbell and Cotton first had their weavers replicate old blanket patterns, using the commercial yarn Germantown, mostly recreating the Moki style in what became the famed Hubbell Revival. They asked their weavers to produce larger and thicker pieces that were now floor rugs. They encouraged and expected quality craftsmanship and artistic innovations and were now advertising beauty to stores and dealers in New York City and other Eastern metropolis.

Because buyers such as the Fred Harvey Indian Department did not care much for the Moki style and the Germantown yarn that was not “Indian” enough, Hubbell asked his artist friend Elbridge A. Burbank to create paintings, for his weavers to copy from. New patterns blending early native designs and Oriental ones framed into an all around border became a new innovation for Navajo weaving. Now almost all the yarns used were native handspun wool limiting the color palette to white, gray, brown, black and of course the famed Ganado red with an occasional blue. The new patterns and color schemes had a great influence on other regional styles such as Two Grey Hills.

Even though our two traders parted ways in business, they stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Hubbell passed away in 1930 and Cotton in 1936.

The Hubbel Trading Post stayed in the family until it was sold to the National Park Service and still functions as a trading post. The C.N. Cotton Company ceased all activities after Cotton's death. 



100 Years of Navajo Rugs - Marion E. Rodee

Rugs & Posts - H.L. James

C.N. Cotton and His Navajo Blankets - Lester L. Williams

The Legend of Don Lorenzo - Erica Cottam

 Juan Lorenzo Hubbel

Juan Lorenzo Hubbel

 C.N. Cotton

C.N. Cotton

Saddle Throws, Blankets and Rug Samplers

One often ignored aspect of the Navajo textile industry is the creation of small weavings whether fancy small saddle throws, saddle blankets or the newer rug samplers.

Early on, during the Classic Period (1860’s and before) weavers made fancy small blankets that were used as saddle throws to add protection and decorum to the traditional horse gear. These saddle throws were of high and classic quality and workmanship, using expensive and exquisite wool yarns such as raveled bayeta and after 1863 the commercial 3ply, cochineal and synthetic dyed yarn manufactured in Germantown, Pennsylvania which became very popular partly due to the wider range of bright and attractive colors.

These fancy saddle throws gave rise to the single and double saddle blankets. In the early 1860’s, soldiers and cowboys used mostly commercial saddle blankets manufactured in the East, but a few examples of Navajo woven saddle blankets have been dated back to the Classic Period. Prior to this time, even Navajo used sheepskins or fleeces under their saddles.

Later, in the 1870’s, ranchers and cowboys near the reservation started to use the Navajo made blankets. The quality and durability of these blankets were quickly adopted by many. Thick, absorbent, with open weave allowing better air circulation on the horse’s backs, they were superior to mass produced blankets.

Early in the 20th century, some weavers started to create “mini” rugs of the different regional designs. These small weavings are great examples of the skill and artistic talent of the Navajo craftswomen and a wonderful way to build a collection of classic regional rugs as well as a collection of beautiful color and abstract fields with saddle throws and blankets.