This is a guest blog by Barbara Bair, curator of Literature, Culture and the Arts in the Manuscript Division.
A “Native American Arts” display on view in the Thomas Jefferson building beginning October 6 and extending throughout Native American Heritage Month in November features select works by Indigenous artists represented in Library of Congress books and special collection items.
“I am a feather on the bright sky / I am the blue horse that runs in the plain”
—N. Scott Momaday, “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” from “In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems,1961-1991.”
A current “Native American Arts” display at the Library of Congress highlights the impact of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and select Native artists and crafts persons from 1970, and pays tribute to Plains Indian ledger art and its legacy. It shows the movement, over time, of traditional art forms and designs from many Indigenous cultures influencing modern artists from various Native American heritages. They work in different mediums, from paint and ink to basketry, sculpture, or bead or quill work, to carry on talent and tell and re-tell different kinds of community stories.
First, a definition: what is ledger art?
Ledger art first emerged in reaction to violent conflicts and relocation policies of the 19th Century, including the slaughter by whites of buffalo herds. Buffalo hunts and hides were intrinsic to many tribal nations’ traditions and their means of survival, and hides and clothing were a major medium of artistic and ceremonial expression.
Male Plains Indian artists began to create representational art on pages of found paper-based products introduced through settler and military colonialism. They substituted these used and often bound paper sources for unavailable hides, or choose to adapt their art by combining Indigenous and European American mediums to astute, and sometimes sardonic, message-sending purposes, contrasting brightly colored flat images they drew and painted atop or adjacent to existing printed material, written figures or texts. The result was a synergistic, often highly politicized, sometimes spiritual or mystical art form similar in rendering to collage.
Written or printed texts and painted and drawn designs in ledger art exist at odds or in contrast with one another. Indigenous prisoners of war and others utilized used account or ledger books, maps, telegrams, and other paper sources to draw and paint traditional scenes and symbolic communication of meaning related to myth and story. Contemporary Indian artists, including women and those outside Plains culture, have adapted and expanded this tradition of visual expression and commentary to embrace female experience and ceremonies, or tell tales of heroism and wisdom. Others have used it to comic purpose or as a form of depicting activism.
Shown in the “Native American Arts” display are examples from Library of Congress book illustrations and collections that reflect late 1880s to contemporary Spokane, Arapaho, Blackfeet, Sicangu Lakota, Caddo, and Salish artists working out of various traditions. The display includes reproduced works by collage and visual artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation (in label rail graphics adapted from a Prints and Photographs Division image), an unattributed medicine vision (1883), a boarding school student’s drawing from Spokane (1905), George Flett’s depiction of a warrior’s dream (2004), Dolores Purdy Corcoran’s figuring of horseback riders in Prismacolor and ink (2008), Linda Haukaas’s feminized tribute “Horse Nation” (2010), and John Isaiah Pepion‘s “Winona LaDuke and Faith Spotted Eagle Make a Stand” (2014).
Although the horse is not central to many Native American traditions, and is often utilized in popular culture and entertainment in stereotypical ways, horse and other animal imagery permeate the selected ledger art on display. The examples feature images of horses as critical to warrior, ceremonial, and spiritual practice. Quick-to-See Smith’s father was a horse trader, and horses and animals from animal and trickster tales (such as birds, rabbits, and coyotes) are part of her inspiration. Her lithograph “Waiting for Rain” speaks to the fragile complexity of the ecosystem and the creatures of the natural world, only one element of which is human. Haukaas and Corcoran claim the horse as significant in the lives of women and Native decorative arts. Flett depicts horses in association with the heroism and brave spirits of men, and in the drawing “Indian Cowboy” horse-and-warrior imagery appears amidst illustrations of farming and ranching.
The “Native American Arts” display remains on view at the Library of Congress through December 6, 2023. Richard Pearce’s “Women and Ledger Art” (University of Arizona, 2013), Janet Catherine Berlo’s “Plains Indian Drawings” (Harry N. Abrams, 1996) are key sources, as are materials from the Manuscript Division and Prints and Photographs Division.
For more resources on Native American Heritage from the Library, check out these digital collections:
- Living Nations, Living Words: a project by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo aimed to introduce the country to 47 Native poets.
- 2023 Native American Heritage Month resources from the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Gallery of Art, and more.
- Free to Use and Reuse images from the Library of Congress collections.