- Women and Ledger Art: Four Contemporary Native American Artists by Richard Pearce
By Richard Pearce. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013. xiii + 102. Illustrations, notes, works cited, index. $24.95 paper.
Women and Ledger Art: Four Contemporary Native American Artists presents us with the work of four well-known Native artists of the past forty years who share the genre of ledger-style art. The women are Sharron Ahtone Harjo (Kiowa), Linda Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota), Dolores Purdy Corcoran (Caddo), and Colleen Cutschall (Oglala Lakota).
Ledger art was at first unique to Plains tribes, but it grew out of the older and widespread pictographic style of drawing on rock, hide, and other surfaces. The author’s introduction and the preface by Plains art scholar Barbara A. Hail, curator emerita of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, prepare the reader, who may not be familiar with ledger drawing, with a succinct history. That history traces the origins to seventy-two warriors of five Plains tribes incarcerated at Fort Marion around 1874. The men were encouraged to draw and were given paper. Soon the concept spread, and the paper source most readily available in frontier days was often ledger books, both new and used.
It is of particular significance that this book is about women artists, a point reiterated throughout the book. Historically, ledger art is a form utilized, for cultural reasons, by men. The events recorded were essentially male activities. As a long-time professor of feminist literature, author Richard Pearce was drawn to examine the lives and work of these modern women artists as they broke new ground. He saw a need to explore the role women ledger artists played in recent years and, in doing so, to fill in the untold stories of women. Pearce’s goals for this study were to illuminate the extraordinary accomplishments of these Native women artists and to set their drawings in their local as well as geohistorical context. Another goal was to preserve both the meanings of the works and the actual words of the artists as they discuss their work and what they know of both tribal history and contemporary life. The terms “transculturation” and “autoethnography” are used to discuss the cross-cultural nature of ledger art through Native people’s appropriation of dominant culture materials to represent themselves. This is most clearly seen in the use of actual ledger paper, often recycled from records of deeds or other non-Indian business transactions, as not only the support but also literally the fully integrated background of these contemporary drawings.
The book provides a ground for us, as readers, to compare and contrast the four individual styles. Though the art has long been seen as primarily a storytelling medium with documentary purpose, today’s ledger artists are free of restrictive tribal parameters—such as the old prohibition of women drawing figuratively. While choosing to remain within the recognizable genre, Native artists now have the artistic freedom that permits and encourages individual style and expression. In spite of the individuality in the four women’s work, they share certain threads, such as a desire to express women’s issues, history, and perspective that have long been absent from these documents. Each places the preservation of tribal history high in their priorities. Humor permeates the work.
Harjo, granddaughter of an early ledger artist, Samuel Ahtone, uses mixed media paired with carefully chosen documents to create images with an ironical message. These [End Page 114] documents make strong visual statements and biting commentary.
Haukaas’s work, in pencil and ink, expresses the pure joy of being a Lakota woman and glories in traditional dress. The figures, usually seen from behind, appear to be participating in an unnamed ceremony; visually they unite to become a complex and varied surface decoration. Under the surface, however, is insight based not only on history but also on Haukaas’s own experience of the public ceremonial arena today, the powwow world.
Corcoran’s impetus was in part the rich and ancient history of the Caddoan people, as seen incised on shells and gorgets, which she acknowledges as forerunners of...