As a dealer of historical Native American art for the past forty plus years, Donald Ellis Gallery has had ample opportunity to reflect upon the place of Ledger Art in the larger art historical context. The gallery views these drawings as profoundly seminal works of American art, while also acknowledging the conditions in which they were created and the collecting histories that surround them.
Ledger Art is a continuation of long established Indigenous pictographic traditions that have their origins in prehistoric petroglyphs and historical hide painting. To Native peoples image making was a means of recording events by way of a sophisticated visual language complete with customs and standards.
In the late 19th century, specifically the years 1875 to 1878, a group of Native American warriors from a number of Central Plains nations were sentenced to prison at Fort Marion in St Augustine, Florida. During their incarceration, a small group of young Cheyenne and Kiowa men with nascent martial reputations took up drawing on paper supplied to them by their military captors. For most, drawing on paper was a totally new endeavour, as the tradition of recording history had in previous times been reserved to painting on hide. For these young warrior artists, Ledger Art was a novel means of documenting their lives which had begun on the open Plains.
With these drawings, warriors such as Koba, Wohaw and Nah Hi Yurs established their feats of courage, showcased their artistic skills, and made a small income from sales to the military men and local tourist community with whom they interacted on a daily basis. In this way, a large number of the ledger drawings and books created at Fort Marion arrived in collections in New England and beyond.
After their release from Fort Marion, a number of warriors eventually returned to their respective reservations. By that time, Native American material culture had become the subject of many Western collections and works on paper were in high demand. In ledger drawings from this period, artists tackled new subject matter by depicting life on the reservation while keeping with tradition by continuing to create historical scenes.
If there is any one indicator that at the time of their creation these works existed outside a dominant culture it would be the English annotations sometimes found on these drawings. Usually inscribed by the first non-Indigenous collector, these notes describe with varying degrees of accuracy the scene represented in the drawing. The histories and strains implied by these points of contact are significant, and part of a dominant colonial system that has kept these historically significant works on the sidelines of the broader art world. In showcasing these drawings and the artists who created them, this exhibition seeks to reposition Plains Indian Ledger Drawings as profoundly significant works of American art.
Ledger Art and the Fort Marion Period
Although ledger drawings had occasionally been sold or traded with locally stationed members of the U.S. Army between 1860-1870, a comprehensive commercialization of Ledger Art was fully realized with a group of exceptional drawings created between 1875-1878 at Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida. Following a massive military defeat of the Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne in the Red River War of 1874-1875, over seventy young warriors were incarcerated, without trial, for three years at Fort Marion. Provided with paper, crayon, watercolor and ink, approximately twenty-six of the prisoners were encouraged to create drawings of their traditional lives on the Plains. This was partially to satisfy the appetite of tourists frequenting Fort Marion for mementos of their travels, but also to promote the government’s efforts to assimilate Native warriors into the Euro-American way of life.
The works created during this three-year incarceration are among the rare instances where individual artists can be identified. In some cases the artist signed their names on their drawings, and in others complete books of ledger drawings were annotated by their owners with the name(s) of the artists who created them. Most of the prisoners engaged in drawing were young men in their early twenties who had not yet achieved significant social standing in their respective Nations. In contrast to personal records of military feats which had dominated earlier Ledger Art, drawings from Fort Marion frequently depict memories of recent events, such as the arduous journey from Oklahoma Territory to Florida by horse cart, train, and sailboat. Recurring portrayals of hunting and courting scenes as well as entirely new subject matter such as sacred ceremonies also distinguish these drawings from pre-reservation graphic art from the Great Plains. Rather than focusing on the accumulation of power and prestige, drawings from Fort Marion evoke an emotional landscape that is at once traumatic, nostalgic, proud and celebratory. These remarkable drawings constitute unique records of a pivotal time in American history, and serve to greatly expand our understanding and appreciation of life as it was lived by these young warrior artists, whose world had been left behind.
In response to the current global health crisis Donald Ellis Gallery will donate 10% of all sales to relief efforts. Clients will have their choice in supporting one of the following charitable organizations:
Center for American Indian Health
Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund
City Meals on Wheels
Provenance, exhibition history and literature references for specific works are available on request.
A publication related to this work is available here.
Nah Hi Yurs (Carl Matches, d. 1914), Southern Cheyenne
Nah Hi Yurs was among thirty-two young Southern Cheyenne warriors arrested and sent to prison at Fort Marion, Florida, in 1875. His drawings are best known for their passive, almost photographic qualities which dominated the pictorial tradition of Plains Indian drawings. Placing less emphasis on warfare, Nah Hi Yurs provides the viewer with snapshots of domestic life; men on horseback engaged in the hunt, courting scenes, temporary encampments, dance and ceremonial life, as well as images of daily life at Fort Marion. A sense of nostalgia for a former way of life seems to pervade the drawings, together with a high degree of attention to detail in the costumes and personal adornment of the characters.
In April 1878, Nah Hi Yurs, along with fifteen others, travelled to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, an educational institution originally established to educate newly freed African-Americans after the Civil War. In June 1879, Nah Hi Yurs took up residence at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he took the name Carl Matches. In 1892 Matches received an allotment of land near the towns of Canton and Watonga, in present-day Blaine County, Oklahoma. He died on October 26, 1914.
Koba (Wild Horse, 1848-1880), Kiowa
Koba (Wild Horse) was a twenty-seven-year-old Kiowa man who was imprisoned along with seventy-two other Native American warriors in 1875 at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. Koba and his band surrendered to the US cavalry during the Red River War in February of the same year. He was charged with stealing horses and mules in Texas, as well as participating in a skirmish at the Wichita Agency in 1874 in Wichita, Kansas. Born in 1846, he had not yet obtained a prominent position in Kiowa society at the time of his arrest.
Provided with art supplies by Richard Pratt, the commander at Fort Marion, Koba made a number of remarkable drawings during his three year confinement. Marked by the experiences and sights during the long journey from Oklahoma Territory to St. Augustine, Koba recorded his memories of this eventful trip by horse cart, train, and sailboat. His drawings appear to capture the duration of the trip and the anguish the prisoners would have undoubtedly experienced during their journey towards an uncertain future. While extensive depictions of landscape are almost completely absent in previous Ledger art, Koba rendered both his changing environment and his memories of pre-reservation cultural activities with great care for detail. Other depictions of hunting and courting scenes as well as the entirely new subject of sacred ceremonies sharply distinguishes his work from pre-reservation Plains Indian graphic art, which had primarily focused on warrior exploits.
After three years under the acculturation program at Fort Marion, Koba spent two more years at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, originally a school for newly freed African-Americans. He went on to assist farmers in Lee, Massachusetts, for the fall harvest, before enrolling at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania from October 1879 to September 1880. Considered the flagship of Native American boarding schools in the US, Koba trained to become a tinsmith. However, like many following his trajectory, Koba contracted tuberculosis and died only two months after returning to his people in Anadarko, Kiowa Agency, Oklahoma, in 1880. A number of individual works and a few complete books by Koba survive, including those in the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, and at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Wohaw (Beef, Gu Hau De or Wolf Robe, 1855-1924), Kiowa
Following seven months of imprisonment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Kiowa warrior Wohaw was sent to Fort Marion, in Saint Augustine, Florida, at the young age of twenty. Accused of killing three white settlers he remained incarcerated for three years without trial from 1875-78. One of twenty-six prisoners known to have created drawings during their detention, Wohaw’s legacy is particularly compelling given that the Kiowa, unlike other Native American nations, were not known to have created drawings on paper prior to 1875. Frequently capturing multiple timeframes in the same image, Wohaw’s drawings stand out for their almost cinematic aesthetic quality. One of his works, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows a warrior receiving blessings from two spirit animals. The drawing embodies the complexity of Wohaw’s artistic vision, rendering visible how Native Americans straddled two worlds, that of the wild buffalo and that of the domesticated bull.
Upon his release from Fort Marion in 1878, Wohaw returned to the Kiowa Agency in Oklahoma, where he joined the Indian Agency police force, and ultimately the US cavalry’s Indian Troop. He died in 1924 on the Kiowa Reservation at the age of sixty-nine.
Noh Hu Nah Wih (Chief Killer, 1849-1922), Cheyenne
Noh Hu Nah Wih (Chief Killer, 1849-1922) was one of the foremost artists producing drawings at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, between 1875 and 1878. His work is of a very distinct style marked by the firm outlining of figures, with each field filled with a variety of colours. Human figures are rendered with rounded foreheads, long slightly upturned noses, curving nostrils as well as prominent and at times pointed chins. Noh Hu Nah Wih's well-proportioned horses commonly appear in profile with angular backs, long legs, and prominent hoofs. The artist alternated between strong coloring in some areas, and light or no coloring in others. Each color is applied with different degrees of pressure, creating a broad range of intensity of hue, a technique that is rarely seen in pre-reservation Ledger Art. Noh Hu Nah Wih's drawings of Plains life typically appear on a blank page with no further indication of setting or environment. The lack of environmental queues was supplemented by the warrior’s verbal recounting of the scene depicted. By contrast, Noh Hu Nah Wih's drawings of prison life frequently emphasize spatial arrangement and architectural details. The careful depiction of societal regalia, including blankets, ceremonial dress, breast and hair plates, shields, war bonnets, quivers, and lances, serve to identify the individual figures in the drawings. During the pre-reservation era, such personal adornment denoted membership in specific warrior societies, each design signifying the wearer's identity and individual status in the society.
Cedar Tree, Southern Arapaho, ca. 1880
Not much is known about Cedar Tree, a Southern Arapaho warrior artist that this ledger book is named after. Around 1882, the year the Cedar Tree Ledger Book was first collected, he likely resided nearby the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency in Darlington, Oklahoma. Cedar Tree’s autobiographical drawings describe a man of great accomplishment who possessed an extraordinary visual memory and demonstrated a remarkable attention to detail. Contrary to the conventions of Ledger Art, and most Plains pictographic traditions, Cedar Tree’s mounted warriors enter the composition from the left hand side of the page. The consistent depiction of himself holding a lance in his left hand, along with the characteristic left-to-right orientation of his drawings suggests that Cedar Tree was left-handed.
The fifty-six drawings comprising the Cedar Tree Ledger are the result of a collaborative effort between five or six Native American artists from the Kiowa, Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne nations. The last page of the book contains a list, handwritten in English, likely by its first non-Indigenous owner, that briefly describes the content of each drawing as well as the tribal identity of its artist, an uncommon feature in ledger books. “Big Tree” is the first name listed in the inventory. A comparison with the US census from the years corresponding to the collection of the book indicates that the same warrior likely went by the name Cedar Tree. This instance illustrates a common issue arising from the transliteration of Native American names to the English language for government use.
Macnider Ledger Book, Lakota, ca. 1880
The Macnider Ledger Book is a highly important art-historical record created by several Lakota warrior artists at the onset of the Reservation Period. Produced during a time of tremendous upheaval, these drawings are both a window to life on the open Plains as well as a revealing documentation of the sudden and fundamental changes that occurred from the 1870’s onwards. Each drawing is a vibrant record of past events. Horse tracks suggest direction and speed, while graphic lines radiating from a gun barrel indicate shots fired at the warrior. Here, the highly abstracted imagery seen on earlier pictographic traditions on hide and rock gives way to a more realistic perspective, showing attempts at fore-shortening and three-quarter views. Costume and personal adornments are rendered with great attention to detail, while the frequent depiction of trade goods, such as colourful blankets, umbrellas and kettles, are a rare feature in early Ledger Art.
Coffeen Ledger Book, Crow, ca. 1890-1910
The Coffeen Ledger Book is named after one of its first non-Indigenous owners, Herbert Allen Coffeen (1869-1916). One of the largest property owners in Sheridan, Wyoming, Coffeen was an advocate for full citizenship for Native Americans, and collected Indigenous art, some of which he sold in his shop under the name of “The Sign of the Teepee.” The Coffeen Ledger was created on pages of a bank passbook issued by the First National Bank in Sheridan. It is likely that the artist was living on the Crow Indian Reservation inside the Montana border north of Sheridan. It was a common occurrence that the Crow (and other nations) frequented towns such as Sheridan to acquire necessary goods and provisions. The drawings in the Coffeen Ledger are unusual in their singular representation of almost cinematic frames from a classic Western frontier town. Distinct attention to detail shows the artist’s keen interest in clothing styles and cultural activities, while the appearance of urban details such as lamp posts appear to be unique in Ledger art.
Julian Scott Ledger Book, Kiowa, ca. 1880
The Julian Scott Ledger consists of fifty drawings created by two, possibly three Native American warriors of the Kiowa nation. First collected in the vicinity of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, it has tentatively been dated ca. 1880. Each drawing in the ledger relates to life on the Southern Plains before and during the early reservation period — a time characterized by sweeping political change that was marked by the displacement of Native Americans across the entire Great Plains. While the names of the Kiowa artists who drew the compositions in this book remain unknown to us, we are able to identify at least two distinct artists’ hands. Following convention, the artist of the pair of drawings included in this exhibition has come to be known as Julian Scott Artist A, referencing the name of the first non Indigenous owner of this ledger book. Each work depicts a detailed battle scene between the Kiowa and the Pawnee. The images are annotated with inscriptions dating to the 19th century, attempts to distinguish the identity of the two warring peoples in each scene. One caption, appearing on page 91, accompanies the image of a spider in the top corner of a ceremonial dance scene. It reads: 'This is in imitation of a bug that was crawling across the page, while the Indian was drawing.' The inscription predates the acquisition of the ledger book by the American artist Julian Scott at Fort Sill by almost a decade. For now, it remains unknown exactly who made these annotations except that they were certainly made by a non-Indigenous person that came in contact with one the ledger’s artists in 1880.
The second recognizable artist, known as Julian Scott Artist B, contributed only four drawings to this ledger. Despite the sparsity of this output, one of the drawings, an extraordinary depiction a group of twelve Kiowa men in ceremonial dress, is now in the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He Nupa Wanica (Joseph No Two Horns, 1852-1942)
He Nupa Wanica (Joseph No Two Horns, 1852-1942) was a Hunkpapa Lakota born in an area of South Dakota that would later become the Standing Rock Reservation. He became a formidable warrior by the age of 14, as well as an accomplished artist producing work in a variety of materials. He Nupa Wanica was among the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who were participants in the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn, one of the most notable defeats of the United States Army on the American frontier in the late nineteenth century. As an artist, He Nupa Wanica was well-known for his carving of wooden horse effigy staffs as well as his painted war shields, tipi covers, muslins and ledger drawings. His artistic output was prolific despite a debilitating injury to his right hand suffered in a buffalo hunting incident. He Nupa Wanica’s works on paper typically depict scenes based on his personal experiences such as war exploits and horse raiding. A distinctive feature of the artist’s drawings is the repeated inclusion of his shield, one of which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He Nupa Wanica’s signature shields portray a black thunderbird with rays of light or energy emanating from its spread wings, designed to protect and empower the warrior during battle.