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April 21 2016

Restoring Native American Histories in Picture Form

The New York Times

An article in the New York Times examines the growing interest of dealers, collectors and academics in restoring complete sequences of nineteenth-century Ledger Drawings. Created by warrior artists from the Great Plains on pages of accounting ledgers obtained from Euro-Americans, many books had been disassembled to fit the needs of the market. 

By rendering personal and communal histories in picture form, Ledger Art offers unique historical records of Native American life on the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century. However, with the growing market value of individual drawings, many of these books were broken up and are now dispersed across private and institutional collections. As the author remarks, ‘with the loose pages no longer in their intended sequences, the graphic narratives of battles, courtships, disease outbreaks, ceremonies and imprisonments have become unintelligible.’

A group of dealers, academics and collectors are leading the effort to restore complete sequences of Ledger Drawings along with individual artists’s identities and tribal affiliations. Donald Ellis Gallery has set out to sell intact books to its clients, rather than disassembling individual pages. The gallery is ‘also tracking down pages long separated, including Cheyenne ledger drawings that belonged to the actor Vincent Price.’ 

Part of that collection has been posted on, a website founded by Ross H. Frank, associate professor for ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. The Plains Indian Ledger Art Project (PILA) seeks to digitize extant ledger books and individual drawings scattered across institutions and private collections, creating an important tool for comprehensive research and a trusted resource for provenance. Since the publication of the article, Donald Ellis Gallery has formed an ongoing relationship with the platform.  

As the historic significance and artistic merits of Ledger Art are coming into focus, a number of institutions have directed their attention to the field. The Manhattan location of the National Museum of the American Indian has just opened Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains, an exhibition spanning Plains art drawn on animal hides, tepees, clothing and fabric, as well as intact ledger books. Donald Ellis Gallery is taking about 70 Ledger Drawings to an exhibition opening on June 3 at the Gisela Capitain gallery in Cologne, Germany. And both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art, among other institutions, have recently been acquiring Ledger Drawings for their permanent collections. 

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Restoring Native American Histories in Picture Form