Plains Indian Drawings, 1865?1935: Pages From a Visual History, edited by Janet Catherine, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1996, $60 cloth, $45 paper.
Ledger drawings made in the late 19th century and early 20th century by American Plains Indians have long been treated as historical documents, but only recently have art historians and other scholars come to accept them as complex works of art. “Ledger drawings, as they are called whether drawn in business ledgers or drawing books, have increasingly been included in exhibitions and scholarly writings on Native American art, and command high prices at auctions and galleries,” writes Janet Catherine Berlo in this impressive 256-page book, which has 201 illustrations, including 193 full-color plates. “Yet our analysis and interpretation of such drawings is in its infancy.” These drawings, by Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho artists, were made at a time when the Plains Indians were being confined to reservations, and their traditional ways of life were being shattered.
The book Plains Indian Drawings, 18651935: Pages From a Visual History, along with the exhibition of the same name that is now on a national tour (see “Events Roundup” on P. 89), includes fine examples of ledger drawings made by Indian prisoners at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Fla., in 187578. Wohaw (18551924), a Kiowa warrior sent to Fort Marion at age 20, incorporated the format of the photo portrait in some of his drawings, particularly his Kiowa Portraits of 1877. Making Medicine (18441931), who was arrested as a “ringleader” of the Southern Cheyenne Bowstring society in 1875, produced the humorous Indian Prisoners and Ladies Archery Club while at Fort Marion. The drawing shows two Indian instructors and six female students trying to hit a target; 19 of the 21 arrows unleashed have missed the target entirely. The six dozen Fort Marion prisoners filled scores of ledger books with drawings at the urging of jailer Captain Richard H. Pratt; they were sold for $2 apiece to tourists. But these books, says Berlo, also had a valued place in the lives of those Indians still fighting out West.
“With our interest in and examination of these nineteenth-century drawings,” says co-curator Gerald McMaster, “we are sweeping away the cobwebs and bringing to light…that sense of distinct history.” In any light, Plains Indian Drawings, 1865 1935 will look good to Western historians as well as art historians.