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July 18 2014

The Complex Legacy of Native American Ledger Drawings

The Globe and Mail

In a full page article for the Globe and Mail, James Adams discusses the complicated legacy of Native American Ledger Drawings on view in the exhibition Keeping Time: Ledger Drawings and the Pictographic Traditions of Native North Americans ca. 1820-1900, organized jointly by TrépanierBaer Gallery and Donald Ellis Gallery. The author notes that ‘the subject is a cultural phenomenon informed by unequal parts subjugation, resistance, acculturation, appropriation, admiration, creativity and, yes, beauty.’ 

The 19th century represents ‘great flowering of graphic arts on the Great Plains of North America,’ according to art historian Janet Catherine Berlo. Keeping Time showcases the artistic diversity by pairing seventy Ledger Drawings of museum-quality with a few dozen pictographic works created in other media, including painted Cheyenne parfleche and a Crow shield and cover from 1870. By doing so, the exhibition contextualizes Ledger Art as a continuation and extension of long-established pictographic practices on the Great Plains of North America.

As Ross Frank, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California San Diego and Director of the Plains Indian Ledger Art Project (PILA) stresses, the history of Ledger Art is complex. Obtained from Euro-American settlers, the accounting ledgers on which these works were created are also symbols of invasion and destruction. As Adams notes, depictions of ceremonial life, courtship, horseback riding, camp life and combat are also ‘telling documents of a culture under severe duress.’ 

At the same time, some of the most illustrious drawings were created during imprisonment at Fort Marion, near St. Augustine, Florida, and sold to tourists or military personnel. So-called “Indian Scouts”, Natives hired by the U.S. cavalry, also made drawings in ledger books, which were frequently gifted or sold to their white employers, their families keeping them as memorabilia passed down through generations. And ‘paper, when it came, gave more opportunity to different people to draw, rather than just the tribal few,’ a First Nations artist remarked.

Keeping Time is an unprecedented exhibition for TrépanierBaer, which typically focuses on contemporary artists, and is the single largest assembly of Ledger Art ever offered for purchase. The exhibition is on view at TrépanierBaer Gallery in Calgary through Aug. 16.

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The Complex Legacy of Native American Ledger Drawings