The Plains Indians of North America have a long tradition of pictographic artwork that precedes the arrival of European influences. Pictographs and petroglyphs originally appeared as etched or stenciled rock art, and the same stylized treatments later transferred to hide and canvas paintings rendered in natural dyes and pigment stains. Supplementing strong oral traditions, this artwork visually recorded the significant events and stories of the people.
Traditionally, women created geometric designs while men created representational – or more realistic – artwork. As a result, much of the artwork focuses almost exclusively on the significant experiences and events that encompassed the world of Indian men. Artwork was also used to capture the vision quest images that occurred during rites of purification and other religious ceremonies.
During the 19th century new artistic materials were introduced through contact with traders and military sources. Indian artisans gained access to pens and ink, watercolor paints, crayons and colored pencils. A new range of colors and precision was added to their drawings. Most significantly, paper in the form of bound ledger books became available to the artists and this new medium for recording their images was adopted.
Following the Indian Wars of the 1870s most of the previously migratory tribal groups were restricted to reservations under strict military supervision. The themes recorded in ledger art shifted to reflect a more sedentary and restrictive life. Battle scenes were replaced with domestic themes such as courtship and home life. Triangular tepees were replaced with square frame houses, and women became more prominent figures. Ledger art also began to be created for a commercial market. By the early 20th century the ledger art movement faded, but its flat, stylized approach is still visible in some contemporary American Indian art.
The Wyoming State Museum owns a small collection of ledger drawing prints reproduced in 1961 from a book owned by the Milwaukee Public Museum. The book was purchased in 1900 following its capture at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, on January 8, 1891. The book was originally the property of Red Hawk and contains 116 images of Lakota warrior life drawn by Red Hawk and several other individuals. Red Hawk was a member of Red Dog’s band. These reproduction prints are rendered at their original size. Red Hawk is Mnicoujou.