Culture  /  Museum Review

A Shameful US History Told Through Ledger Drawings

In the 19th century ledger drawings became a concentrated point of resistance for Indigenous people, an expression of individual and communal pride.

During their three years of incarceration, from May 1875 to April 1878, Pratt gave the men art supplies and permitted them to sell their drawings — made while White settlers were obliterating Indigenous people — and keep the money. The ledger drawings became a concentrated point of resistance, an expression of individual and communal pride, a form of preservation and the continuation of each Indigenous culture’s pictographic tradition, an alternative history of their imprisonment, and more than that.

Most of the 100-plus ledger drawings in the heartbreaking exhibition Fort Marion and Beyond: Native American Ledger Drawings, 1865–1900 at David Nolan Gallery, in collaboration with Donald Ellis Gallery, have never been shown in the United States. This alone makes it the most important gathering of ledger drawings on view in New York since the 1996 touring show Plains Indian Drawings, 1865–1935: Pages from a Visual History, organized by the Drawing Center, and 2016’s Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains, at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The Drawing Center show changed Ellis’s life. He visited it more than 50 times, and has since become one of the world’s leading authorities on ledger drawings.

A significant portion of this exhibition calls attention to two artists: Nokkoist (Bear’s Heart) (Cheyenne, 1851–1882) and Ohettoint (Kiowa, 1852–1934). In November 1876, in recognition of his abilities, Nokkoist received a drawing book of 24 pages, rather than a discarded ledger book. He wrote his name on the book’s signature page. He was 25 and his art was as powerful as anything being made in the US at that time. Also on view are works from a book with drawings by both Nokkoist and Ohettoint, and from Ohettoint’s drawing book. 

With one exception, Nokkoist drew only on one side of the paper in his book. For me, his signature and that decision mark a shift in his intentions, from using art to record events to claiming ownership over his creative property — both of which are acts of resistance. The subjects of his 12 drawings include scenes of a way of life that no longer existed (“Successful Buffalo Hunt” and “Cheyenne Warrior Procession”), historic events (“Meeting Between Cheyennes and Osage”), memories of his journey from Fort Sill to Fort Marion (“Paddlewheeler”), and religious ceremonies (“Observing the Sun Dance”). Together, they present a record of a man moving from the past to the present, as in “Fort Marion Parade Ground,” where the incarcerated men, dressed in army regulation uniforms, are seen marching inside the fort. At once frontal and aerial, the view underscores a feeling of entrapment. The artist’s Great Plains world has been replaced by a prison overseen by White colonists.