Biography 25.3 (2002) 538-540
[Access article in PDF]
Ledger art among Plains Indian peoples developed as the tribes found themselves incarcerated on reservations from the mid-to-late 1800s. Indian agents, missionaries, and others often provided lined ledger book paper to Indian people as a way for them to record their cultures and their personal and tribal histories. In many ways, ledger art became a substitute for the "picture writing" that their peoples had executed for millennia before the Euroamerican invasion, often on the rock faces of cliffs and on the walls of rock shelters and caves. Some of that art was certainly shamanic—that is, part of ritual behavior—but other works were as often a recounting of elements of lives that eventually showed up on ledger paper. The difficult task was to interpret the drawings in manifold ways.
More than anyone else, James Keyser, an archaeologist with the United States Forest Service, has followed this evolution of Plains Indian art. His research has tracked the origins and development of pictographs (rock paintings) and petroglyphs (designs and figures pecked into rock) across time, from their earliest forms through their echoes in contemporary Native American art. In The Five Crows Ledger, Keyser looks at a series of thirteen ledger drawings collected and annotated by Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet during the time from 1841 to 1847, when he was a missionary to the Flathead Indians of Montana. In Jesuit archives for more than a century, the drawings resurfaced in the 1990s.
Five Crows was a Flathead chief, Shil-che-lum-e-la, who was also known as Ambrose, a name given at his baptism. He is known to have done the first eleven drawings in the series, with two others probably done by a different artist. Keyser places the drawings, their content, and the artist into an exquisitely detailed context. Each of the drawings is printed in color, but many black and white drawings, some segmented out of Five Crows' work, and others from other ledger art and rock art, ably demonstrate the concepts and questions Keyser raises.
In his introduction, Keyser places rock art and other Plains Indian picture writing into a cultural context antedating ledger art. Plains art included both non-representational and representational forms. The former was often geometric, using paint, beads, and porcupine quills to decorate clothing and other utilitarian items, usually on perishable materials. The latter depicted real things and events, sometimes presented in a thoroughly stylized fashion, often on perishable materials such as hides, tipi covers, clothing, and shields, but as or more often on rock faces. [End Page 538]
In late prehistoric times representational art was static, focusing on details of people and animals as anatomical elements and personal paraphernalia, rigid in form, with most of the individual figures drawn for their own intrinsic importance. Meanings were symbolic and ceremonial in nature. Most of this Ceremonial Art Tradition is linked to shamans and those on vision quests. In the protohistoric period, around the time of the first European explorations into the Northwestern Plains and during the historic period when traders began to collect items of Native American art from the region, the art shifted toward what Keyser calls Biographic Art. This representational form usually consisted of detailed action scenes of combat and horse raiding. Less frequent scenes showed hunting, dances, sexual exploits, and contact with non-Indians. Most scenes included groups of integrated figures connected by storylines allowing an interpretation of the events depicted. Keyser and others have developed a pictographic dictionary, or lexicon of the forms, allowing a limited "reading" of the stories. Keyser's first chapter ably documents the evolution of the Biographic Art form and its interpretation, including its evolution out of Ceremonial rock art into Ledger Art. His approach is very logical, with marginal elements from rock and ledger drawings to make his...