Reflections on Native American Ledger Art

By James Black 

Native people who roamed and lived in the plains, and hunted the massive herds of buffalo on the Great Plains of North America, lived their everyday lives and had a history. They would tell about their everyday lives, battles and their history on the hides of animals. They would use a primitive form of drawing that you would find on the wall of caves and on the sides of cliffs. They would draw out their stories and their history because they didn’t have a form of writing an alphabet.

Then until around the early 1830s when two brothers, William and Charly Bent built a huge adobe fort on the banks of the Arkansas River, in southeastern Colorado, called Bent’s Fort. They wanted to do trading with Natives Americans in the area for animal hides such as beaver and buffalo. They did mostly their trading with the Southern Cheyenne. The Southern Cheyenne wanted and liked the newer and more modern traded goods such as material that was easier to make their clothing out of, metal cooking utensils, glass beads, ledger paper, colored pencils and inks. It was like having their own Sears and Roebuck in their back yard. That sent the transformation of their hide drawing to drawing their stories on the ledger paper they traded for and gave it a name called, “Ledger Drawings.”

Ledger Art by James Black, Southern Cheyenne

Trading for this paper and the colored pencils and inks was more convenient and easier to use and move around. Ledger drawings were a form that were drawn by men who went into battles so that they could record their encounters, courtships, and their everyday life. So, ledger drawing was just the way that they could record their history. Ledger drawings were mainly drawn by the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota Sioux and the Kiowa.  Nowadays it’s an art form called, “Ledger Art.”

Ledger Art by James Black, Southern Cheyenne

Ledger art today has taken many different forms and is not just drawn by men like it was when it first transformed into ledger drawings, it’s also done by women. Now a lot of ledger art is done by different tribes all across Indian country and even by non-natives. A lot of ledger art today still tells a story but in modern time, such as automobiles rather than horses. Ledger art went from its primitive form to real contemporary style and bright elaborate colors. Old ledger art was just a simple form, now some modern ledger artists still like to keep to the old form, but pay more attention to detail and make it more realistic.

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