A herd of buffalo thunders across a grassy plain, pursued by Cheyenne warriors on horseback. The scene is rendered in flat perspective, the outlines filled with strokes of colored pencil and ink. The vibrancy of the colors and the almost visceral sense of motion created by the lines of the hills and galloping legs of buffalo and horse could only have been created by one who had experienced the hunt firsthand. The drawing, which looks like it could have been made yesterday, is actually over 130 years old, and is part of the museum’s collection of Plains Indian Ledger Drawings.
Curator Rayna Green, who specializes in the histories of native peoples of North America, came upon this stash of drawings in the museum's collection, and knew that she had found something special.
"They are these intriguing, remarkable pictures that tell an unusual kind of history from the perspective of men who were taking their own accounts of the events they participated in and witnessed, of the places and people that were in fact their histories," Rayna said.
The drawings were created by individuals from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other peoples of the southern and northern plains of the United States, as they were held in captivity by the United States Army during the late 19th and early 20th century. American Indian prisoners at Fort Marion in Florida were originally encouraged to learn to draw by their captor, Richard Henry Pratt, as a means of "civilizing" them. Drawn on old account books, scraps of newspaper, and backs of letters in pencil, crayon, ink and watercolor, the drawings document not only a new everyday reality in captivity, but the still vivid memories of hunts, battles, courting rituals, and other ways of life that the artists were no longer free to practice.
I recently spoke with Rayna about these fascinating depictions, which combine qualities of art work, personal diary, and tribal history. Rayna says she was drawn to them in large part because they provide a firsthand glimpse into a unique moment in American history.
"They're filled with scenes of men hunting... filled with scenes of men engaged in battle, sometimes with other native people, sometimes with cavalrymen," said Rayna. "They're filled with blue suits in other words. Many of them have women in them and those are usually ones in which what appears before you is some kind of ceremonial scene."
But Rayna says that beyond just depicting a simple history, these drawings can give us key insights into the minds of the people who made them.
"When you look deeper you are seeing something absolutely critical, you are seeing men whose job it is to do this... So when you see this drawing from his perspective you're thinking, ah, here's what he's thinking when he produces this drawing."
To see many more examples of these drawings, you can visit the museum's online exhibit, Keeping History: Plains Indian ledger drawings. You can also listen to my interview with curator Rayna Green on the History Explorer Podcast.
Sarah Coffee is a project assistant with the museum’s Education Outreach team. She has also blogged about collecting on the political campaign trail.