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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Drawing on Tribal History


The ledgers are paradoxically both too valuable and not valued enough. Made of cheap and fragile pulp, some books molder in the homes of unsuspecting inheritors. Some end up in the trash. (The Ewers Ledger, now part of the PILA database, was fished out of the rubbish bin by the son-in-law of an aging colonel.) When books do surface, they may be auctioned off whole for tens of thousands of dollars and end up in private hands. They could also be dispersed in the art market, where a single page can go for anything from $1,000 to $20,000.

“The project equalizes the playing field,” Haukaas emphasizes. “It allows people from all over, Indian and non-Indian, access to materials they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

The project also functions as a long-overdue lesson. “Native art,” Haukaas says, “is pretty foreign in its own country—Americans know more about Amish quilts than native art.”

A scholar and psychiatrist as well as artist, Haukaas also notes the ledgers “have great currency in Indian life”—serving not only as a “wellspring” of artistic inspiration, but also as “a source of cultural renewal.”
Frank estimates there are some 200 ledger books still extant. But because they are scattered throughout the U.S. in institutional and private collections, there are numerous logistical and organizational challenges to their study. The PILA Project aims to overcome these challenges and provides a simple interactive research platform for scholars of all stripes—from dedicated academics to drop-in tourists.
The project currently comprises 419 plates in eight ledger books, with many more books in various stages of preparation for display. The latest addition is the Zotom Ledger, which was produced by a Kiowa at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Fla., during the infamous, extralegal detention of 72 Plains Indians there from 1874 to 1878. These drawings are among those to first capture Indian impressions of Anglo culture.

Recently, the project has partnered with Robert Wright Gallery of Escondido, Calif., to sell museum-quality reproductions of the PILA ledger drawings. The reproductions are printed by the Indian-owned company, Hi Rez Digital Solutions, an outgrowth of another Frank project, the Tribal Digital Village. The limited-edition prints are also being sold on the PILA website and proceeds go back into the project.

Frank is also collaborating with Lynda Claassen, director of UCSD’s Mandeville Special Collections, on an application for National Endowment for the Humanities funding. He hopes to ensure the preservation of at least 40 more books.
The ledgers are not books in the familiar sense. They are mnemonic and symbolic devices, Frank says, for orally resuscitating the complex elements of an event. Entire stories are often encapsulated on a single page but it is still important to try and keep pages together.

“A page taken out of context doesn’t begin to tell you as much as the whole,” says Greene, of the Smithsonian, because the ledgers were shared among friends and the interaction of multiple artists is often represented in a single book. With as many seven different contributors, the Fort Reno ledger, Frank says, is a good example of this. Some of the drawings are clearly a kind of snickering commentary on others.

A modern-day analogy to a ledger might be a blog; it has a single primary author but is often crucially supplemented by community inputs. Preserving the ledger books is not only about saving an important historical voice, but potentially a whole conversation.

Inga Kiderra is with the UCSD University Communications Office



Plains Indian Ledger Art

Ross A. Frank and Ethnic Studies at UCSD

"A modern-day analogy to a ledger might be a blog; it has a single primary author but is often crucially supplemented by community inputs."