Plains Indian Artists Tell 19th-Century Stories through Ledger Drawings in New National Museum of American History Exhibition

October 25, 2009
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opens the new exhibition “Keeping History: Plains Indian Ledger Drawings” in its Albert H. Small Documents Gallery Nov. 13. The exhibition focuses on drawings developed in the late 19th century by Northern and Southern Plains Native warriors, which provide a first-person description of history as the artists lived it. The term “ledger drawings” stems from the artists’ frequent use of pages from ledgers or account books.

More than 70 Northern and Southern Plains Indians from various tribes were imprisoned in St. Augustine, Fla., at Fort Marion between 1875 and 1878 because of their roles in the Red River Wars, a U.S. military campaign to move tribes onto reservations. Encouraged to draw by their military captors, 26 of the prisoners, mostly Cheyenne and Kiowa, produced hundreds of individual drawings and a number of books detailing their former lives as warriors and hunters as well as their new lives as prisoners and students.

“These drawings illustrate that there is a Native ‘voice’ in the interpretation and documentation of the history and culture of indigenous people,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “This exhibition presents a visual history the Plains Indians as hunters and horsemen with a ceremonial and cultural life and as warriors fighting to preserve that life.”

The work of four Fort Marion artists is featured in “Keeping History”; their vivid drawings were made when they were young men in their 20s: Bear’s Heart, known for his rich interpretations of hunting scenes and social and religious gatherings; Koba, who eventually became a tinsmith after a brief education at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania; Shave Head, who continued his religious studies in the East; and Wohaw, who returned to the Kiowa reservation in Oklahoma, where he became an officer of the Indian Police and later joined the U.S. Army. These drawings presented and preserved the men’s personal and tribal memories at a time when their ways of life were threatened with extinction.

The ledger drawings continue a long documentary tradition among the Plains Indians that included depictions of personal and tribal history through symbolic drawings on rocks (petroglyphs) or on bark and hide (pictographs). These older systems of keeping history and the incorporation of ink, lead, colored pencil, paper and muslin (as in the ledger drawings) have had a major influence on contemporary Indian art. The exhibition draws from the museum’s Graphic Arts collections and includes both ledger drawings and photographs from Fort Marion. The documents and artifacts will be on display through Feb. 5, 2010.

The 1,500-square-foot Albert H. Small Documents Gallery was created to display rare and historically significant documents that reflect the broad scope and mission of the museum in a secure environment. Due to the conservation requirements of the materials on display, most exhibitions will be up for no more than three months. For more information about “Keeping History: Plains Indian Ledger Drawings” and upcoming exhibitions in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu/documentsgallery.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. The museum shines new light on American history after having been dramatically transformed by a two-year renovation. To learn more about the museum, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).