American Indian Ledger Art

Joyce Szabo (University of New Mexico)

Drawings on paper created and used by Plains people in the last third of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries are often referred to as ledger drawings. While many of these drawings, especially those from the earlier periods of their creation, were made on the pages of actual lined accountants’ ledgers, others were not. As different sources of paper appeared, they, too, were used to record heroic actions in battle, horse capture, buffalo hunts and ultimately ceremonies, courting and other genre scenes of daily life. By the late years of the nineteenth century as children were taken to off-reservation boarding schools sometimes great distances from their homes and families, students’ drawings of various subjects continued as a means of remaining connected to their cultures as well as a way to begin to understand something about the new culture to which they were exposed. Here, too, the subject matter often changed dramatically. However, these boarding school drawings were a development of new circumstances and were still rooted in far older traditions. All of these types of drawings were created as visual narratives of great importance to their creators.

Prototypes for ledger art can be found in images carved into trees or painted or carved on rocks, for example, to leave messages for other members of someone’s village or in more complete narrative form on painted hide robes, shirts, tipi liners and lodge covers that recorded men’s valor in battle. As paper and canvas became available, these began to be used as surfaces to fill with the same types of visual information. Drawings on paper differ in their basic form, and that form altered the creation and response to the drawings often recorded within the covers of bound books. Drawing books have separate pages and are intended to be leafed through as viewers examine individual images, although exactly how they were used by Plains warriors is unknown.