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Flett > Ledger Art

Ledger Art

George Flett, My Elk Medicine is Strong, on 1895 Cash Book paper 2002.

Ledger art is a traditional male American Indian art form, which began when Plains Indian warriors drew pictographic representations of heroic deeds and sacred visions on pages of ledger books, balance sheets, obtained through trade or capture.

Anna Blume gives an outstanding example from a ledger book dated 1870, with lists of commodities (sugar, raisins, shoes, etc.). This ledger book had gotten into the hands of an unknown Cheyenne.

"Over the existing writings the Cheyenne artists drew full-page images of warriors ready for battle, holding rifles and lances, their horses in suspended movement.

In another image the Cheyenne depicted warriors on foot holding rifles, bows, and lances, literally walking on a field of calculations. The artists juxtaposed warriors and words, movement and written tabulations.

Like moving into an unknown territory, they weave themselves in and project themselves over the logic and space of writing. Once drawn in, the ledger book was for them a talisman of sorts, a meeting place of cultures, where the Native warrior repeatedly confronted the elusive discourse of U. S. expansion." (42)

And this kind of confrontation is found directly or indirectly in the inherent dialogic of all ledger art.

Ledger art derives from a historical tradition that used traditional pictographic codes to keep historical records and serve as mnemonic reminders for storytelling. The pictographs were originally inscribed on rocks and painted on buffalo robes, shields, lodges, and tipis. Warriors painted their historic deeds on their buffalo robes and tipis to designate their positions in the tribe. When U. S. fur companies, settlers, and cavalry destroyed the buffalo herd, the warriors turned to ledger books with balance sheets used to record white profits made from Indian losses.

Soon the warrior-artists started to record council scenes and scenes from daily life on ledger pages to grapple with and interpret their changing condition. The resulting palimpsest, or layering, reflects the complicated dynamics of Indians going through various stages of traumatic historical change, attempting to preserve their history, resist white authority and power, negotiate tribal and individual identity, and, as the tradition has been adapted by contemporary artists, make political statements.

The most remarkable and important ledger books were produced by Plains Indian warriors imprisoned in Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, from 1875 to 1878.

While the tradition was started by the Plains Indians, it was adapted by the Plateau tribes of the Northwest through the network of trading. Indeed, the most thorough account of the Nez Perce War of 1877 is in the recently published Cash Book, a series of pictographic drawings by an unknown young warrior, who participated in the major battles. George Flett's Spokane tribe is one of the Salish speaking tribes on the plateau.

Historical Note on Balance Sheets


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