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Native American Ledger Art

Ledger art depicting warriors with skunks

Northern Cheyenne warrior-artists confined in the Dodge City jail passed the time by drawing in notebooks, or ledgers.

For thousands of years throughout the Great Plains, Indian artists left pictographs (paintings or drawings) and petroglyphs (carved pictures) on boulders and rock walls.

Plains Indian warriors drew and painted various images on buffalo robes, tepees, and paper. Warrior art was a unique combination of art, communication tool, and record to pass down to future generations.

Ledger art depicting a pair of tepees

Pictures were based upon standard styles taught to young males for simplicity and better understanding by many tribes. Rather than copy what they saw, these artists captured what was important to the story by drawing the main elements. For example, at bottom right is an image of a warrior on his horse courting a maiden.

Warrior-artists found ledger books easy to obtain and carry with them during and after the Indian Wars of the 1870s when tribes were relocated to reservations. Paper was a better drawing material and new items such as colored pencils and watercolors were quickly accepted by the artists.

Warrior on horse courting a maidenIn 1878 a band of Northern Cheyenne escaped from Indian Territory. Captured and confined to the Dodge City jail, Wild Hog and other warrior-artists passed the time by portraying their former way of life. Two notebooks survive, measuring 3.5 inches by 5.5 inches and depicting 80 images of tepees, wild game, hunting, battles with other tribes, and courtship. One notebook was donated in 1922 by the widow of the Dodge City jailer. The second notebook was donated in 1939 by the widow of the clerk to the Indian Claims Commission. Included in the collection are two matted drawings quite unlike the style and format of the notebooks.

These examples of Indian ledger art can be found in the collections of the Kansas Historical Society.

Entry: Native American Ledger Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: October 2003

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.