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