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