As some of you may know, I am a enrolled tribal member and some of the biggest influences of my life and art have evolved out of the culture and history of the Lakota people. As you may imagine, history from a Native American’s perspective is somewhat different than what you may have learned in school. During my studies in graduate school I took a special interest in learning about the mental health issues particular to Native American populations. Native American people suffer from some of the highest rates of domestic violence, substance abuse and crushing poverty; I wanted to know why and how I might be able to help. Our history passed down to us profoundly influences us and how we are in the world:
Historical trauma is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma. Native Americans have, for over 500 years, endured physical, emotional, social, and spiritual genocide from European and American colonialist policy. African American slaves and survivors of the Holocaust also suffer from horrific historical trauma.
The following, rather lengthy, blog post is a brief summary of recent history of the Lakota people and describes how this has influenced one of our traditional art forms into what we know today as Ledger Art. While I don’t seem the particular skill set for this style of art; I love, love, love it! I will also introduce you to one of the artists that I am totally enamored with!
Plains ledger art was adopted as a means of historical representation for the Indian peoples of the Great Plains during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although pre-reservation Plains Indians had no written language in which to record our history, we did have a long tradition of preserving oral histories pictorially. For centuries, Plains Indian men kept historical records of their tribes, first with petroglyphs and pictographs on rock walls, and then painted on buffalo hides. Historical records as well as individual visions and experiences were also painted on tipis and personal garments. The Lakota marked the passage of time by drawing pictures of memorable events on calendars knows as the “winter counts”.
About The Lakota
The Lakȟóta people (pronounced [laˈkˣota]; also known as Teton, Thítȟuŋwaŋ (“prairie dwellers”), and Teton Sioux (“snake, or enemy”) are an indigenous people of the Great Plains of North America. We are part of a confederation of seven related Sioux tribes, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ or seven council fires, and speak Lakota, one of the three major dialects of the Sioux language.
Around 1730, Cheyenne people introduced the Lakota to horses, called šuŋkawakaŋ (“dog [of] power/mystery/wonder”). The people had complex spiritual ceremonies, and placed much emphasis on family and doing things that benefited the people rather than the individual; these cultural and spiritual values remain important among the people to the present day. Once the people acquired the horse, in the mid 1700s, there was an impact on the material culture as well as the social customs of the people. Clothing became designed to be in movement from horseback. We created a whole new art form to honor the horse –horse regalia. Tepees became larger, there was greater mobility, and hunting became more productive.
Additionally, the horse had a direct impact on the integration of the warfare in the fabric of the people’s lives. It is important to understand the main object of Plains Indian warfare was never to acquire land or to control another group of people. Plains Indian warfare focused on raiding other tribes’ camps for horses and acquiring honors connected with capturing horses. In these raids, very much like contests, men sought to out-smart the enemy and gain individual honors by counting coup, or striking the enemy with the hand or a special staff. Plains warfare emphasized out-smarting the enemy, not killing them. With the advent of the horse onto the Plains, warfare traditions became institutionalized among tribes. This style of warfare, described by one author as comparable to a rough game of football, changed dramatically after encounters with the U.S. Army in the 1850s.
The Indian Wars
Initial United States contact with the Lakota during the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806 was marked by a standoff. Lakota bands refused to allow the explorers to continue upstream, and the expedition prepared for battle, which never came. Nearly half a century later, after the United States Army had built Fort Laramie without permission on Lakota land, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was negotiated to protect travelers on the Oregon Trail. The Cheyenne and Lakota had previously attacked emigrant parties in a competition for resources, and also because some settlers had encroached on their lands. The Fort Laramie Treaty acknowledged Lakota sovereignty over the Great Plains in exchange for free passage on the Oregon Trail for “as long as the river flows and the eagle flies”.
The United States government did not enforce the treaty restriction against unauthorized settlement. Lakota and other bands attacked settlers and even emigrant trains, causing public pressure on the US Army to punish the hostiles. On September 3, 1855, 700 soldiers under American General William S. Harney avenged the Grattan Massacre by attacking a Lakota village in Nebraska, killing about 100 men, women, and children. A series of short “wars” followed, and in 1862–1864, as refugees from the “Dakota War of 1862” in Minnesota fled west to their allies in Montana and Dakota Territory. Increasing illegal settlement after the American Civil War caused war once again.
Pahá Sápa – The Black Hills
The Black Hills were considered sacred by the Lakota, and they objected to mining. In 1868, the United States signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, exempting the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. Four years later gold was discovered there, and prospectors descended on the area. Red Cloud’s War was fought that ended in a treaty granting the Black Hills in perpetuity to the Sioux. The treaty, however, was not honored by the United States; gold prospectors and miners continued to flood into the region in the 1870s.
In the ensuing conflict, General George Armstrong Custer and 300 troops were killed at Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, by the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors.
After that battle the Sioux separated into their various groups. The massacre by U.S. troops of about 150 to 370 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in December 1890 marked the end of Sioux resistance. Today, the Black Hills land claim case is still an ongoing issue. Native American lawyer Wanda L. Howey-Fox statements in April 2009 explain the modern issues regarding the Black Hills. She states, “There is no selling to be done because the court determined it was an improper taking and all the court can give as far as remedy is money.” In the present day, the government has recognized that the seizure of land in 1877 was illegal but is still unwilling to return the Black Hills.
Unfortunately, every treaty and every agreement was ever made between the United States government and the Lakota people were violated and broken before the ink was even dry. This side of the story, though not well-known, has its record too, rich in detail, heroism, poignancy, specific battles and events, important figures, even touches of humor. But it was recorded for the Plains people themselves–and in pictures, not words.
Plains ledger art was a continuation, in a new form, of the age old practice of using imagery to record and announce important knowledge and events, including successes in hunting and war. This imagery–pictographs on rock walls and mineral-pigment painting on buffalo hides–also served as a memory aid in oral storytelling. Symbolic narratives painted on tipis, buffalo robes, shields, and other clothing and objects were easily understood by friend and foe alike.
Ledger Art, represents a transitional form of Plains Indian artistry corresponding to the forced relocation of Plains tribes to government reservations, roughly between 1860 and 1900. Due to the destruction of the buffalo herds and other game animals of the Great Plains by Anglo-Americans during and after the Civil War, painting on buffalo hide gave way to works on paper, muslin, canvas, and occasionally commercially prepared cow or buffalo hides.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, as the buffalo were being slaughtered and new drawing materials were simultaneously accessible to Plains warrior-artists for the first time, the pictorial tradition found a new form. Used storekeepers’ ledger and accounting books and other types of paper were obtained from traders, settlers, military officers, missionaries and U.S. government agents. With pencils, crayons, fountain pens and occasionally watercolors, the traditional stylized imagery of hide painting was continued, but in finer detail.
Early ledger arts primary subject were battles and hunting, but as the buffalo disappeared and the Plains tribes were increasingly confined, the drawings began to focus more on personal experiences, such as courtship and daily life. Once solely the domain of warrior-artists, the imagery also began including more of the feminine point of view. Plains artists added scenes of ceremony and daily life from before the reservation to the repertoire of their artwork, reflecting the social and cultural changes brought by life on the reservation within the larger context of forced assimilation.
Lasting for nearly 70 years, ledger art was a adaptable medium that mirrored the changes in Plains Indian life at the time. The earliest surviving ledger drawings are from the early 1870s and depicted events from the artist’s life such as acts of warfare or courtship. By the late 1870s, however, most Plains Indians had been influenced by American culture in some way, and it became apparent in their ledger art. Often, the drawings chronicled the new experiences that came with reservation life and assimilation into American society. The most famous of such drawings are those done by the Plains Indians imprisoned at Ft. Marion in St. Augustine, Florida from 1875-1878. The prisoners were encouraged to sell their work for two dollars a drawing, leading to a demand for Indian ledger art among the American middle class. Intact books of early ledger drawings have been compared with modern-day blogs; one artist may have created the first drawings, but the books were often passed around and others added their own depictions of the same event. In this sense, much of the fullness of historical record contained in early ledger drawings was lost as art dealers removed pages from bindings to be separately sold.
Contemporary ledger artists employ the art form for many of the same reasons their ancestors did: to honor pre-reservation cultures and the battles and struggles of the transition period; to visually comment on–and often poke fun at–the world around them; and to reinforce the lines of continuity between earlier and current day life in the Native world.
“Ledger Art History.” Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California San Diego: Plains Indian Ledger Art Project. 2011
Art Crushing On Donald “Yellowbird” Montileaux
Like his Oglala Lakota ancestors, Donald “Yellowbird” Montileaux started off painting on buffalo hides he laboriously processed himself–an art form he learned from his mentor, Herman Red Elk-and later shifted to ledger books. Unlike in the 19th century, however, it wasn’t the buffalo’s disappearance that inspired a transition in Montileaux’s art. “Being an artist and having an ego, I hated to keep getting third place or honorable mention in hide painting, after Red Elk,” the 63-year-old artist says, smiling.
Montileaux, who studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, has indeed earned top awards with his ledger art. His richly hued paintings on high-quality antique ledger paper are widely collected and have been commissioned to illustrate numerous books. With a deep respect and knowledge of his people’s history and symbolism, he continues the age-old tradition of telling stories and recording important events.
He not only preserves history, he made history as the first living artist whose artwork was launched into space. In 1995 Montileaux was involved in a mentoring program for tribal youth when he was asked by the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology to create an artwork to raise funds for the program. “Looking Beyond One’s Self” is a stylized depiction of three robed Lakota gazing up into the starry sky. With a number of School of Mines alumni working as NASA engineers, the painting ended up aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
Montileaux’s art often begins with ledger books dating from 1872 to 1920, whose paper contains a high percentage of silk fiber rather than wood pulp. Applying as many as 10 blended layers with Prismacolor pencil, he produces intensely saturated color burnished into the silken fibers. The result is a sense of dimension and depth in his imagery of warriors, horses, tipis and buffalo. He also paints on such documents as mid-19th-century maps, old banknotes, or authentic documents of illegal gold mines in the Black Hills.
Born in Pine Ridge and living in Rapid City, South Dakota, Montileaux is half Lakota and half French–his two great-grandmothers were Lakota and two great-grandfathers were French from Quebec. As such, he appreciates the juxtapositions inherent in ledger art. “It reflects both my cultures,” he observes. “It’s a good marriage for my art.”
Montileaux’s work is on view at www.donaldfmontileaux.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.