Stories are shared in an array of manners: They can be spoken, portrayed through film, drawn or painted, and can derive from a multitude of places, be it political standpoint, fantastical world, from a personal moment in one’s life, perhaps from a point still yet to be determined. Ledger art, or narrative art, mostly practiced by plains indigenous peoples, including the Blackfeet, Lakota, Comanche, Kiowa, among other nations, is known for relaying stories through simple pictures and bold colors.
However, as the new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian can attest to, Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains, narrative art is a mode of self-expression that is changing as quickly as the world around us.
The exhibit, curated by Emil Her Many Horses [Oglala Lakota], introduces the origins of narrative art with historic pieces dating to early 19th century, created by various plains figures and artists, including Long Soldier [Lakota/Nakota], Mountain Chief [Blackfeet], Black Chicken [Yanktonai], and Chief Washakie [Shoshone]. What was a plains’ tradition of retelling, remembering and honoring war successes and visionary experiences on hide, quickly became a way to express drastic changes in their social context. Devastating blows in plains Natives livelihood during the reservation era can be detected through the changes of material from buffalo hide to paper and muslin, to using color pencils, to changes in themes of the narratives themselves. This is most saliently seen in the art created by Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne prisoners at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, which depicts their life in prison among white clergymen and soldiers. Work by these artists were mostly on ledger paper, drawn in color pencils and ink.
Since the resurgence of Native American art during the 1960s, their work has inspired many Native American artists to explore and push the boundaries of narrative art.
Over the course of three years of research, Her Many Horses, an award-winning artist himself, was able to bring together a bevy of contemporary Native artists’ work. Unbound contains fifty-nine contemporary pieces, most of which are exhibited to the public for the first time. Fifty of these works were commissioned exclusively for this particular exhibit. The artists include the late Sherman Chaddlestone [Kiowa] and Norman Frank Sheridan [Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho]. Among contemporary artists are Ronald Burgess [Comanche], David Dragonfly [Blackfeet/Assiniboine], Dwayne Wilcox [Oglala Lakota], Chris Pappan [Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota], Martin E. Red Bear [Oglala/Sicangu Lakota], Dallin Maybee [Northern Arapaho/Seneca], as well as others.
It’s the placing of certain pieces together that also allows us to appreciate the continuum of plains artistry and creativity. Take for example a late 19th century Lakota painted model teepee, which was most likely a child’s toy, placed next to a painted model tent by James “Jim” Yellowhawk [Cheyenne River Lakota] called Wacipi Oti created in 2012. Both pieces reflect narrative art stylistically, usage of bold colors and repetition of emblems of tradition, yet they deviate from the binds of pages. In the case of Wacipi Oti, Yellowhawk is able to humorously bring together traditional styles of ledger art and contemporary activities, like camping.
As with Yellowhawk’s piece, the exhibit showcases how narrative art is not confined to ledger paper nor is it confined to a single demographic. As the popularity of ledger art increases–more Native Art competitions include and award narrative artists – we see more women narrative artists as well. Vanessa Jennings [Kiowa/Pima] is one of three women featured in the Unbound exhibit. Jennings, who identifies as a “traditional woman” versus an artist, is known for her clothing, regalia, cradleboards and beadwork. Her regalia piece, inspired by Ton-Kon-Ga [or the Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society, established to honor Native veterans], reminds us of historic plains hide in the beginning of the exhibit, where war successes were expressed symbolically. Acknowledgement of one’s achievements or those of a loved one, is a humbling act and not one of showing off.
Juanita Growing Thunder-Fogarty’s [Assiniboine/Sioux] piece, Doll with Honor Dress, also reflects narrative art that goes beyond hide or paper. Growing Thunder-Fogarty, trained in quill and bead work, collaborated with her brother, Darryl Growing-Thunder, who is also featured in the exhibit, to create an intricate doll made of hide, muslin, porcupine quills, beads, etc., whose dress shows horses and warriors in motion.
Lauren Good Day Giago [Arikara/Hidatsa/Blackfeet/Plains Cree] is a skilled traditional regalia maker and bead artist, which can be appreciated in her colorful and detailed illustrations. She continues to use antique ledger paper as a medium but her ledger art deviates thematically from more traditional work. Her illustrations are personal experiences in her own life, like her piece Making of Relatives, where she depicts the moment she and her husband adopted a relative as their child. We can also see the strong appreciation for the women in her life and lineage through her piece, We Learn from Our Grandmothers. Like Growing Thunder-Fogarty and Jennings, Good Day Giago work also jumps off the pages and also honors present-day warriors through her regalia piece, A Warrior’s Story, Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird.
Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains reveals the many pathways narrative art has taken over the years. It showcases a diverse and talented group of contemporary Native artists, each one telling their own story through various themes, aesthetics and materials. Emil Her Many Horses allows for each story, may it be from the present or past, to be in dialogue with one another.
Unbound is an inspiring collection reflecting the vibrancy of plains artists and plains culture, at large.
Genesis Tuyuc (Maya Kaqchikel), born and raised in New York City, is a fiction writer, filmmaker and community organizer. She is an alumnus of New York University, where she studied Linguistics and Creative Writing.