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The American Indian artistic tradition among the Plains Indian tribes has a long history. From prehistoric rock art to late nineteenth century tipi and personal-possession decoration, these folk depicted their lifeways through highly stylized representations. Artistic activity is usually divided into separate, gender-related categories: Geometric decorative designs were created by women, and life forms were illustrated by men. Late in the nineteenth century, when paper became readily available to these people, much of the life-form art, previously executed on hide, began to appear in ledger books originally designed to keep the financial accounts of mercantile establishments.

Ledger book art existed among northern plains tribes such as the Lakota, Blackfoot, Crow, and others, but it was much more prolific among the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the Kiowa of the southern plains, due to the common experience of their incarceration in Florida. In 1875 seventy-one Indians from the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes plus one lone Caddo were arrested at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and sent to Fort Marion, Florida, near St. Augustine. There, under the supervision of Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, they began a program of presumed rehabilitation. One of the activities Pratt encouraged was the use of paper, colored pencils, and water colors to produce images of their personal experiences. The three years these American Indians spent in Florida produced a tremendous artistic outpouring. In 1878 the government released the sixty-two surviving members of the group. Most returned home to Oklahoma, but twenty-two remained in the East at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. In 1879 eleven of those went on to the Carlisle Indian School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. By 1881 all of them were back in Oklahoma.

The exiles' drawings differed greatly from their traditional imagery. While the subject matter included reminiscences of a number of former life activities, hunting scenes, for example, replaced the earlier, traditional focus on warfare. Additionally, the prisoners recorded with remarkable clarity their lives at Fort Marion and the sights they saw. All this imagery was executed with much closer attention to detail of costume and scenery than previously demonstrated in American Indian art. Not all of the prisoners produced drawings. None of the Comanche nor the Caddo participated, and only the younger members of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa drew, because elders had not traditionally taken part in those activities. Surviving pages of this remarkable artistic endeavor were produced by twenty to thirty men.

With the return of the Fort Marion group to the reservation, production of ledger book art largely ceased. Most of the artists resumed normal lifestyles and some, like Okuhhatuh (Sundance), who was called Making Medicine at Fort Marion and who later took the name David Pendleton Okerhater, even achieved prominence. He became a deacon in the Episcopal Church, helped establish the Episcopal mission at Darlington on the Cheyenne Reservation, and faithfully served there the rest of his life, eventually being considered a saint by that denomination. Others, like the Cheyennes Howling Wolf and Tichkematse (Squint Eyes), produced at least one ledger book each after the Fort Marion experience, while the Kiowas Zotom and Ohettoit worked at decorating tipis and other traditional artistic endeavors. But these were the exception, and the artistic flowering that had begun at Fort Marion withered back on the reservations.

After the return of the Fort Marion men the most significant ledger book art producer was a Kiowa named Haungooah (Silver Horn), whose brother, Ohettoit, was one of the captives. Silver Horn worked with his brother and Zotom decorating traditional tipis and began to produce ledger book art work in a less stylized fashion. Silver Horn reputedly influenced both James Auchiah and Stephen Mopope in their work before they became a part of the famous Kiowa Five, whose artistic style, developed at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1920s, is generally recognized as the beginning of the modern Native American Art Movement. Examples of ledger book art are now prized possessions of numerous cultural institutions including the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Robert G. Donnelley and Candace S. Greene, Transforming Images: The Art of Silver Horn and His Successors (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2000). Candace S. Greene, Silver Horn: Master Illustrator of the Kiowas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001). Moira F. Harris and Wo-Haw, Between Two Cultures: Kiowa Art From Fort Marion (St. Paul, Minn.: Pogo Press, 1989). John R. Lovett and Donald L.DeWitt, Guide to Native American Ledger Drawings and Pictographs in United States Museums, Libraries, and Archives (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press,1998). Karen Daniels Petersen, Plains Indian Art From Fort Marion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). W. Jacson Rushing, "The Legacy of Ledger Art in Twentieth Century Native American Art," in Plains Indian Drawings: 1865-1935, ed. Janet Catherine Berlo (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996).

Bobby D. Weaver

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