Indian Ledger Drawings at the American History Museum

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Between 1875 and 1878, seventy-two Plains Indians were imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, for their involvement in the Red River Wars in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Their captors, particularly a warden by the name of Richard Henry Pratt, encouraged the Indians to draw during their imprisonment—an activity they thought would "kill the Indian and save the man." They drew on any paper available to them, often the pages of old ledger and account books, and their illustrations, depicting their lives as warriors, hunters, suitors and prisoners, became known as "ledger" drawings.

Recently, I attended a gallery talk at the National Museum of American History, where several ledger drawings are on display in an exhibition called Keeping History: Plains Indian Ledgers. I was drawn to one drawing in particular, "Buffalo Chase and Encampment" (pictured above). The scene, sketched in colored pencil, ink and watercolor by Bear's Heart, a Cheyenne who served his sentence at Fort Marion, is of men (in black) courting women (in blue and green). Floating above their heads is a depiction of a buffalo hunt. As Joan Boudreau, co-curator of the exhibition, pointed out, the artist's intentions are unclear. Was he trying to show that the men were telling the women about their hunting exploits, with the hunt pictured above like a thought bubble, or had he intended the hunt to be a separate image?

Despite some information about them remaining unknown, the drawings reveal a lot about the lives and ceremonial activities of the Plains Indians. To see more examples of the ledger drawings and learn about their origins, visit the exhibition, which is open through January 31 in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery in the museum's second floor, east.

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