More Than Words: Storytelling as a Primary Source

More Than Words: Pictoral Images

Winter Count on cloth, by Long Soldier (Hunkpapa Lakota), ca. 1902. Fort Yates, ND. Muslin cloth. (11/6720). Courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution. (accessed Aug 2021)

Native American communities use and create drawings as a way to document significant events and consider them as important as written documents. Pictorial images such as drawings, pictures, paintings that use symbols continue to be used to keep track of history and pass knowledge along. Blackfeet, Kiowa, Lakota, Mandan, and other Plains tribes are especially known for using pictorial images to create calendars known as  winter counts. Winter counts are a chronological collection of pictorial images that represent the most significant community events every year.  These are often drawn on materials easily found in nature like stones, tree bark, and animal hides. 

Observe the model tipi (image below) that was made specifically for the Field Museum’s collection in 1905. 1.) What is the first observation that stands out to you?  2.)  Are you able to tell what kind of material the story is drawn on?  3.)  Based on the image and information provided, can the story be considered a primary source? 4.)  Can the story be helpful when studying U.S. History?

Model tipi collected by Mooney (Ethnological Expedition to Oklahoma - Cheyenne and Kiowa), 1905, Darlington, Oklahoma. Courtesy of the Field Museum of Natural History. "The sketch was drawn by Charles Murphy as dictated by Yellow Eyes, Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux."

The use of pictorial images and drawings by Native American artists and communities went through a major transformation in the late 19th-century.  Around this time, natural materials became less available and accessible due to the deliberate over hunting of buffalo by settlers and laws put into action by the United States government.  Ledger paper from books used to record all of the financial transactions of a business, also known as ledger books, became a popular substitute to capture pictorial images and drawings.          

Below is an example of ledger paper from a ledger book from the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, found in the Field Museum’s archives.

Courtesy of: World's Columbian Exposition. (c) Field Museum of Natural History. (accessed Aug 2021) "Installing Exhbits" ledger paper from 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (hosted in Chicago, IL).

The transition from tracking history through drawing pictorial images on materials easily found in nature to ledger paper and books became known as Ledger Art and remained popular through the early 20th century.  Contemporary Ledger Art carries the importance of drawing and pictorial images into the 21st century. Current Native American ledger artists continue to explore and represent traditional topics in new ways, while also using their platforms to bring awareness to modern day issues faced by them and their communities.

Watch Part 1 of "Native American Ledger Art." 1.) In thinking about how events and information, both in the past and today, is documented, do you think pictorial images and drawings such as Ledger Art are recognized to be as valuable as written documents? 2.) Can you think of an event that is easier to document through drawing and pictorial images?

"Native American Ledger Art." - Smithsonian Museum educator Ramsey Weeks (Assiniboine, Lenape, and Hidatsa) discusses Native American Ledger Art. Video courtesy of: Smithsonian Education 2014. (accessed Aug 2021)