As is true in all cultures worldwide, Native Americans have art forms uniquely their own. In most cases, what we call Indian "art" originated as items used in everyday life such as pottery, clothing and other accessories, tools, weapons, or ceremonial implements. In many Native American languages there is no word for art since the creation of the things needed for life was not an activity separated strictly on the basis of aesthetics. People simply created things with the most beauty and meaning they could because excellence brought an individual honor and prestige in the community, in addition to conveying messages of a spiritual or historical nature. Sometimes records were kept with the use of images in pictographs or other symbology and ledger art emerges directly out of this tradition.
Indigenous and other ancient cultures are often known for the pictorial images they left in caves or on rocks, such as in the petroglyphs of New Mexico. In pre-reservation Plains Indian cultures history was recorded in narrative imagery painted on animal skins to recall particular events of the year or important battles or horse captures. Some people such as the Skidi Pawnee even kept star charts to track the movement of the evening sky which determined important ceremonial and planting cycles. In Lakota culture the painted hides were called "winter counts." The images were typically simple yet stylized depictions of people and animals, colorful and distinct.
Prisoners of War
The 1850's, 1860's and 1870's would see the creation of many treaties with the Plains tribes, most of which would fail due to the constant incursion of white settlers onto Indian lands as well as Indians resisting the reservation system, resulting in decades of ongoing war. The Red River war, fought between 1874 and 1875 in the southern plains region of the Texas Panhandle, culminated in the capture and incarceration of dozens of Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche and Caddo warriors. They were sent to the site of a 16th century Spanish fort in Saint Augustine, Florida known as Fort Marion, where they were held for several years. The Fort Marion prison, under the leadership of Col. Richard Pratt, would become an experiment in the assimilationist goal of educating Indians into American culture. It was the forerunner for the Indian boarding school system which would later become mandated under the Dawes Act of 1887.
While interned at Fort Marion, among other educational pursuits Pratt encouraged drawing which could be easily done with the new materials of colored pencils and pens that were available to the Indians. It was a time of dramatic change for the inmates/students and just as the hide drawings of the past served as a method of historical documentation, Pratt recognized that the images created in drawing books at Fort Marion would also be an opportunity to preserve what he undoubtedly saw as a dying past. Inevitably, they drew scenes of their previous life on the plains as well as depicting scenes from their newly emerging lives as American citizens. But because Saint Augustine was also a tourist destination, in addition to keeping them busy, Pratt saw the art created by the inmates as a way to generate income by selling their work to tourists, effectively creating a new sub-category within what was shaping up to be a new commercial market: Indian art.
A New Genre
Ledger drawing was not confined to the Fort Marion education project. Ledger art is so named for drawings that were being done on the pages of accounting ledger books which were often acquired at forts and other frontier outposts in the Great Plains. Certain names stand out, however, as the grandfathers of modern ledger art. Howling Wolf (Southern Cheyenne) and Zotom (Kiowa) were among the captives at Fort Marion who produced a body of work during their three-year incarceration, much of which survives in museum collections today, and whose work is often emulated by contemporary ledger artists.
Although traditional ledger-style drawing would continue in rural reservation communities, a new, more highly stylized form of illustration would evolve, gradually surpassing ledger art in popularity. By the 1920's a group of Oklahoma Kiowa artists known as the Kiowa 5 came to set a new standard in the Indian art world, eclipsing the old ledger art by comparison. Traditional ledger art had all but died out until the American Indian cultural renaissance of the 1970's, when a handful of young native artists went back to the roots of the old-style ledger drawing. Studying the work of Howling Wolf and Zotom and others, they revived traditional ledger art which has become one of the most popular genres of Indian art in the contemporary market.
Szabo, Joyce M. "Imprisoned Art, Complex Patronage: Plains Drawings by Howling Wolf and Zotom at the Autry National Center." Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2011.