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  • Religion in Kiowa Ledgers:Expanding the Canon of American Religious Literature
  • Jennifer Graber (bio)

Richard Henry Pratt recalled his 1875 trip transporting 72 Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho prisoners of war from their homelands in Indian Territory to Fort Marion, a military prison in St. Augustine, Florida. The Indian prisoners had tried to drive the Americans out of the Southern plains in a struggle that came to be known as the Red River War. Pratt, who went on to administer the military prison where the Indians were held, remembered that some of them “drew pictures of the journey and sold them to tourists” (108). For Pratt and other Anglo-American visitors to the prison, drawing seemed to be a good way for Indian inmates to pass the time. Selling these pictures also provided the prisoners a chance to participate in St. Augustine’s growing tourist economy.1

Pratt and the many visitors to Fort Marion soon acquired numerous Indian drawings. Tourists bought individual sketches as well as some collected in bound notebooks called ledgers. Viewers delighted in what they considered to be sentimental drawings in which defeated Indians recalled their dying way of life on the plains. Some visitors and collectors, such as the California artist Eva Scott Fényes, even offered the Indian artists advice about what subjects from the past they should draw (Szabo 40). To be sure, ledger drawings from Fort Marion document many cultural practices from the Southern plains, including forms of dress, courtship, and ritual, as well as hunting, fighting, and socializing. The ledgers also include images of the Indian prisoners’ most recent experiences, including life on the recently formed reservations, military loss to the US Cavalry, and the transport to and confinement in Fort Marion. [End Page 42]

If Anglo-Americans viewed ledgers as windows into a glorious past that was passing away, the artists who created them understood them differently. Indian peoples across the Southern plains had long histories of painting and drawing with natural materials on surfaces such as rock and buffalo hide.2 The Kiowas, for instance, painted and drew in ways that evoked powerful encounters with sacred beings and recorded communal history. They painted their shields with images and colors associated with protective sacred powers. When preparing for battle, they also painted their bodies and their horses in colors of sacred significance. The Kiowas also used drawing and painting to record significant historical events. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they created calendars in which artists painted symbols on animal skins to document their people’s pasts (see Figure 1).3 Older men, called keepers, rendered one symbol for the summer and one for the winter of each year. Calendars and their signs served as memory prompts, inspiring viewers to recall particularly memorable events, such as a dramatic meteor shower in 1833 or the smallpox outbreak of 1861. This visual recordkeeping also included individual forms. Kiowa men made images on tipis that attested to their brave deeds. For the Kiowas, drawing testified to encounters with sacred powers. Drawing also provided a way to record communal and personal history.

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Fig 1.

Kiowa Anko calendar on buckskin, National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier: 523631.

Indians on the Southern plains began to draw on paper some time around the Civil War. Americans entering the area in large [End Page 43] numbers brought new materials, including colored pencils, watercolors, and ledger books for documenting trade and keeping business accounts. Indian artists, who had drawn and painted on rock and skin, eagerly acquired these new materials. During his time in the cavalry, Pratt observed some Indians drawing and ordered paper and pencils for the inmates he supervised at Fort Marion. Kiowas and the other Indian prisoners used the items Pratt supplied. They drew pictures that recalled their cultural practices prior to Anglo-American domination, but as more than mere mementos of a fading past. For the Kiowas, drawing evoked encounters with sacred powers and beings. Sketching or painting figures elicited the retelling of historical events.

To be sure, Pratt’s observations about Indian drawing were not necessarily wrong. Some of the imprisoned artists drew pictures of the...


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