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May 4 – July 30, 2021

Fast Ponies and War Bonnets
A Lakota Look at Ledger Drawings

How does a Lakota artist read Lakota Ledger Drawings that are 120 years old and how can these drawings inform contemporary life?

There is something about the line. The artist’s line, and in the case of Ledger Drawings, the Indigenous artist’s line and the lines on the ledger paper itself. These cool renderings of the Indigenous self, culture, life and warfare seem to exist between art, documentation, cultural aesthetics and storytelling. Of the seventy-eight images I have selected fast ponies and war bonnets drive the narrative. Sixty-four of the images are from the Goodwyn Ledger Book and were made into a video flip book – the images are of battle with combat occurring from upon horses, the warrior often shooting the enemy with a gun or bow and arrow. The warriors are embellished with elaborate headdresses, leggings, chest plates and war paint. Some of the horses are decorated with feathers or a type of protective pouch. The fighting is with both other Indigenous nations or Euro-Americans and a few of the images are of ground combat with American soldiers dressed in blue uniforms. There are images of two warriors on one horse, one facing forward steering the horse, the other facing backward and shooting what is behind them – Indigenous warfare at its best. This particular set of drawings is measured and fast paced when viewing one after the other, perhaps invoking what battle is really like. Some of the works seem quickly rendered as if under duress, or invoking memories of battles fought. War artists who are out in the field under dangerous circumstances, either drawing live or from memory – how do we place these drawings within a larger analysis of war art or historical drawings of conflict?


Dana Claxton works in film, video, photography, single and multi-channel video installation, and performance art. Her practice investigates Native American stereotypes, Indigenous beauty, the body, socio-political and historical contexts, and spiritual practices.  

Her work has been exhibited internationally at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), Walker Art Centre (Minneapolis, MN), Vancouver Art Gallery, Sundance Film Festival, Salt Lake City (UT), and Crystal Bridges (Bentonville, AR), amongst others.

She is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory with the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. Her family's reserve is Wood Mountain Lakota First Nations located in SW Saskatchewan. She resides in Vancouver, Canada.

Flipping through the static images an urgency becomes visible, my own cadence in writing this becomes heightened as I ponder the narrative of “Indian Wars” and the reality of what was happening in America in the late 1890’s, with hostile corrupt take-overs of Indigenous lands and the massacre at Wounded Knee. The state of war is never calm – or only calm before or after the attack – that silence before or after a thunderstorm. Then we arrive at the wounded horse, bleeding, shot several times – the horse as an equal warrior and also a casualty of war. From urgency to agency the warriors and horses fought alongside each other to protect their territories and families.

Ledger Art in the context of North America are historical renderings that can assist with a contemporary analysis of Indigenous art histories.

They provide the line and the vision of the line to carry historical narratives and cultural aesthetics into the present. These works and the hundreds like them provide viewers with new understandings of Indigenous subjectivities, while creating viewing pleasure. The Lakota language translates in a different order than English and the word for horse reads as ‘dog’ Shuka and ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ - Wakan and has been commonly used in English as Holy Dog. In Lakota it is Shukawakan.

I have arranged the images to be viewed in a specific order and will write to that sequence. Beginning with a drawing of Sitting Bull that was possibly made by him, the holy man and warrior who led my family to Canada. Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull) made many flesh offerings “so the people may live”. So I may live. So Lakota people may live. So my relatives and our descendants may live. In front of me I see an image of his line. Not only am I part of his line/age, I am now looking at his line. Along with this I am thinking about how he crossed the Medicine line into Canada to bring us to safety, however challenging it became in Canada. There are stories in my family of starvation and that trauma of history along with the contemporary structural dehumanization of Lakota people on both sides of the Medicine line have created challenging circumstances “so the people may live.” It is a profound ethos. And with that the people live, but the people also struggle. This image before me is beautiful and violent. It tells the story of a warrior on a horse wearing an exquisite war bonnet, shooting and wounding his enemy. The enemy is another Indigenous man. Of the hundreds of drawings I looked at very few have a signature, and this one has Sitting Bull’s. Following the time frame of this drawing to around 1885 – he had been to Canada, brought my family to Canada, along with 5000 community members, travelled to Europe and joined the Buffalo Bill Show. Indeed, Sitting Bull lived an extraordinary life.

Roan Eagle Ledger Book

Following the Sitting Bull drawing I have selected three images from the Roan Eagle Ledger Book, beginning with a warrior on a blond horse (facing left) and heading east from my current position. The delicate fine lines and acute detailing show the very intricate beaded designs on his moccasins. Continuing with two more images from the Roan Eagle Ledger, one of these intriguing images is facing right, as opposed to most Ledger Drawings where the subjects face left. The verticality of the faint blue ledger lines runs top to bottom, with the warriors on Shukawakan seemingly cutting through. The drawing reflects the horizontality of Indigenous philosophy which disrupts hierarchies with equal fluidity, not only those of the imperial picture plane but the hierarchies of Western drawing itself. These books, generally used for accounting and recording early capitalist endeavours, have now become a material for Indigenous self-representation, disrupting capital modes of recording profits and losses. For the battle images, the losses are life.

Infinity resides within the materiality of making art in ledger books. The Indigenous subject is no longer centred in the tropes and restrictions of Western perspectival drawing. The picture plane dissolves, creating an Indigenous subjectivity.

The drawing on page 107 of the ledger is of a warrior carrying an eagle staff and wearing a war bonnet, chest plate and beaded leggings. The details in these images represent Plains male clothing. They are wearing long war bonnets, delicately rendered with fine lines and embellishments. On the mane of Shukawakan a red clothed offering is tied to his harness, and the horses tail is also tied with red cloth. Red cloth within Lakota tradition is often used to wrap wakan (sacred) items and to make tobacco offerings to Wakan Tanka (Great Mystery/Great Spirit). At the base of the horse’s bit hangs a bag with a fringe and/or metal “jingles”. The drawings from the Roan Eagle book are exquisite, with delicate fine lines, micro detailing and as the ponies fly they are surrounded by and exist in infinity.


Two images by the Lakota artist Skunk, whose Shukawakan images face left, are in fluid motion as if charging the enemy. The warriors on horseback wear their war bonnets made of eagle feathers tipped in black. In the first Skunk drawing the warrior carries a war shield, which appears to be embellished with a crest moon. His war bonnet feathers appear to be tipped with horsehair. The delicate red swirl of line extending from the tip of the feathers dance along with the image itself. What is striking about these drawings is the fluidity of motion and movement that creates a sense of freedom and autonomy despite what is going on outside the frame. The saying “it’s a good day to die” comes to mind when viewing so many warriors on ponies.

The embellishment of Lakota aesthetics on clothing, parfleche and buffalo robes can also be located on some of the horses themselves. They are occasionally painted with braided tails, wearing their own feathers or donned with offering ties of red cloth. These sacred beings carried warriors into battle and were honoured for giving their lives in battle. The Horse Dance comes to mind, which is a ceremonial dance attributed to the visions of Black Elk.

In the third drawing the warrior is wearing a long war bonnet with buffalo horns and carrying an eagle staff. The bonnet flows down the backside of the rider, as it also floats in the air. The delicate lines reveal exquisite attention to detail, with feathers tipped in red, possibly horsehair. I make the assumption that these were drawn from memory or imagination, as opposed to an artist in the field documenting live actions on the battlefield.

Oliver Good Shield

Ledger Drawings are delicate and beautiful. And demand to be looked at, they demand a close read. Gazing in the case of Ledger Drawings should not be permitted.

The four images attributed to the warrior artist Oliver Goodshield feature the most superb tubular-ish war bonnets with mostly solo warriors on Shukawakan. The long, extended draping of the bonnets as well as the shorter mid length renderings are all in action with the wind and movement of the ride, carrying the hair tipped feathers afloat. The ponies are in full trot, seemingly off to battle or riding the territories. Some warriors carry guns while others long decorated eagle staffs. A few are painted up with face paint, while others wear breastplates or long-sleeved shirts. The decorated ponies wear feathers attached to their tails or manes. The majestic warrior on horse is repeated by a skilful hand, thus affirming this central mythic figure, both historically and in the contemporary imagination of “Plains Indian” warriors. What these images represent is a form of self-representation during a time when Indigenous people were being challenged by American imperialism and expansion, the criminalization of their culture, forced on to reservations and a multitude of other oppressive legislation. Ledger Drawings depict first person narratives, whether stories of war, love or the everyday. Indigenous telling of their current reality is being rendered with their own hands, with the hand of the artist, or the hand of the storyteller, or the hand of the one recording history. The hand – this conveyer of knowledge and sight, is significant in all these drawings as it brings to life what is in the mind's eye of the artist. And further the Indigenous hand – how are these drawings influenced by Indigenous tactility and sight? World views and spirituality? And what of the relationship to infinity and the spirit world?

Goodwyn Ledger Book

One rare work, the first image from what is known as the Goodwyn Ledger Book, is a rendering of a ceremony with four men seated at the drum and others in motion around them. One of the dancers wears ceremonial paint honouring Tatanka (Buffalo) while the others wear headdresses and other cultural belongings. There appears to be a woman in the lower left, identifiable by her dentalium shells and red cheeks – perhaps exhibiting the matrilineal lines in most Plains cultures, or she may be a Medicine Woman witnessing the ceremony. While most of the works I have selected are of male warriors, it should be noted that there are many Ledger Drawings that feature women, exquisitely rendered in traditional clothing and depicting cultural narratives of ceremony, love and the everyday.

Most of the remaining images I have selected are of battles, with all the images facing left, maintaining the cinematic quality of the moving picture. They demanded to be made into a video flip book. At accelerated speed the urgency and brutality of battle is heightened. These drawings and many like them are within the realm of war art and required a deep scholarly analysis of their visual and narrative forms within the realm of art history and war art more generally.

I have selected four images from the Goodwyn pages, which are part of the video flip book. They are renderings of Shukawakan and warriors. The depictions of the side profile of the horse, multiplied in different colours, is reminiscent of the four directional colours of black, red, yellow and white. This particular collection of battle scenes is telling in its blood shed, with Shukawakan being shot in several images, and the type of combat that was taking place. The drawings and flip book tell a warrior's tale.

Amidon Ledger Book

We close with two drawings by an anonymous artist from the Amidon Ledger Book that depict sacred knowledge and imagery of Shukawakan. These magnificent beings support Lakota people in profound ways, from fighting alongside warriors to pulling travois carrying goods, transporting elders and children and food during starvation periods. The great four-legged are considered their own nation – the Horse Nation is revered. These two images are profound with the Star Nation making an appearance as well. Along with the four-legged are the winged ones. These are deep images of ceremony, transformation and the manna of spirit. In the first drawing the Medicine Man in the corner is holding his cannupa (pipe) and a rattle in his other hand, he is in full body paint, wearing Tatanka horns – he is in ceremony and the spirit of his magic flows up to the winged ones and through to the Holy Dog. In the last drawing I see transformation with the Star Nation and winged ones witnessing. For today, this is all that can be said, knowing that Lakota spirit is here today. I am thankful to view these drawings. I am thankful that the artists have made them. I am thankful to look up from my screen and see the east and south. I am thankful to the sun.

Ledger Flipbook

Dana Claxton has written these words on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations and is grateful for their stewardship of the land, water and air. March 18, 2021. 9:18 am.

Donald Ellis Gallery will donate 10% of all sales made during this exhibition to Cairns, The Center of American Indian Research and Native Studies, as chosen by Ms. Claxton.

Virtual Walk-Through and Discussion

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