Drawing for Survival

Cave of Pettakere, Bantimurung district (kecamatan), South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Hand stencils estimated between 35,000–40,000 BP
Cave of Pettakere, Bantimurung district (kecamatan), South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Hand stencils estimated between 35,000–40,000 BP Wikimedia Commons

For artists in truly adverse circumstances, notebook drawings have proven to be essential tools for survival. Consider American Indian ledger books of the Great Plains. About 200 copies survive to this day; the Plains Indian Ledger Project seeks to digitize these precious works online.

Between 1860 and 1900, the U.S. government forced Plains Indians onto reservations. Schools opened up with an insidious doctrine: children had to wear American garb and speak English. Cultural extinction loomed. Plains Indians had always relied on oral storytelling rather than the written word to weave together their history. In a few generations, their languages and collective culture would be lost.

Many Plains Indian tribes preserved their history by drawing and painting on buffalo hides. In the Northern Plains, artists of the Lakota tribe created winter counts, which reduced a linear calendar year into a significant event, represented in a drawing. Each year began with the first snowfall. The Lakota knew 1833 to 1834 as "storm of stars winter," depicted as a tipi under a starry sky by the Lakota artist Brown Hat. Collected together, the winter counts tell the history of a people with poetic economy.

On reservations, Plains artists adapted to their newfound circumstances. Without buffalo hide and bone for painting, they drew with tools from a foreign culture: pen, pencil and crayons upon accountant books, diaries and other notebooks. They gleaned pencil and paper from the used notebooks of unwitting U.S. soldiers or sympathetic government workers who encouraged them to tell their tales.

Ledger art assumes an astonishing array of forms: children's school book drawings; documents of war battles and reservation life; and, finally, dream narratives (a technique shown in this stunning sequence of drawings by Black Hawk, Chief Medicine Man of the Sioux).

One ledger book has garnered particular interest because its authenticity has been questioned. Found in Texas beneath the floorboards of a house, this book reveals a collaboration between John Green Kelly, the child of a white Comanche captive woman, who was then raised as a Comanche, and Tatsen, an exiled Kiowa-Apache Medicine Man. One page of the ledger book shows the traditional tipi and stars pictograph for 1833 to 1834 with cursive text: "On this occasion falling stars filled the sky like a swarm of lightning bugs. To Tatsen this was the Spirit Talk of Death for it seemed a certainty Heaven itself would fall."

(Courtesy of Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection, New York Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York)

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