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Flett > Identity


 Negotiating Identity

Hertha Dawn Wong argues that when warriors painted pictures on their buffalo robes they were negotiating their position as an “individual/tribal” identity. When a warrior-artist drew pictographic representations of his tribal history—a scene from the past, a scene of reservation life, or a scene of prison life—in a ledger book, it “might be seen as a personal treaty—an attempt to negotiate between one’s individual/tribal identity and a new dominant culture” (89-90).

A vivid illustration of ledger art as negotiation is a drawing made in Fort Marion by Kiowa warrior Wohaw, which has come to be called “Wohaw and His Two Worlds." As Robert Donnelley describes it,

A Plains Indian—identified as Wohaw himself in the inscribed name above the figure—stands in the center of the drawing between a short horn steer and a bison, on his left and right respectively. Wohaw has depicted himself as a warrior with long hair wearing a red fringed breechcloth, a manner of dress in sharp contrast to the prison requirements of short hair and a prison uniform. His left foot rests on tiny parcels of land, perhaps plowed fields, which touch a Western-style dwelling. Just beyond his right foot is a cluster of buffalo hooves, the Indian pictograph for a bison herd. Over the horizon to his right stands a tipi, the traditional dwelling of the Plains Indian, which is much larger in scale than the tiny house on his left. Wohaw’s hands are stretched out to the right and left. Each holds a differently colored peace pipe with the stem facing one of the animals. In response to this offer of friendship, each creature blesses Wohaw with a schematic, symbolic flow of breath representing, in the Kiowa spiritual lexicon, life-giving energy. The artist turns his face to the new world of the short horn. (53) 


George Flett, Untitled

Ledger style drawing on 1930 and 1931 Congressional Record paper, mounted on embossed water color paper. 2002 32 x 33 (including mat).

George Flett’s untitled picture above builds on a post-contact tradition. According to David W. Penny's study of the horse in Plains Indian art, artists absorbed and subverted the Euro-American symbol of power. They “created images of horses prior to the modern era for three basic purposes: (1) as part of a prayer for blessings, which included ownership of horses; (2) as part of a rendition of personal history in which horses (as prizes of battle or as mounts) played a role; and, later in nineteenth-century American history, (3) as part of a constellation of symbols applied to dress and other media to convey and assert a distinctive [and, following Wong, I would add negotiated] American Indian identity." The negotiation is complicated and highlighted by the Congressional Record forming a ground for his figure of the proud warrior on his horse.


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