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Ledger art is a traditional form of artwork that was originally practiced by Plains Indian artists beginning in the 1800s. You can recognize ledger art by the unique canvas that form the base of the drawing or painting. Ledger artists use discarded "ledger paper"—banking book paper, accounts books, certificates and bonds, and sometimes even currency—as their drawing surface, creating art right on top of old writing, printing, and images. The resulting art is a unique blend of text and figures that are incredibly striking.
Our Inspired Natives Project Artist®, John Isaiah Pepion (Piikani/Blackfeet) is a modern-day ledger artist; we sat down with John to learn more about this fascinating form of art that today is practiced by Native artists across Indian Country.
John Isaiah Pepion (Piikani/Blackfeet) in front of his Lightning Horse Wool Blanket
Ledger art is a type of narrative art developed by Plains Indian people and was popular from the 1860s through 1920s. Plains artists traditionally painted on buffalo hide; however the buffalo eradication program by the US government in the 1800s made buffalo increasingly scarce. Plains artists began using paper as the canvas for their narrative designs: artists often used ledger books, the portability of which were ideal for the nomadic Plains lifestyle. Ledger art was primarily drawn or painted by men and depicted narrative, representational subjects (as opposed to the geometric designs frequently found on parfleches, which were most often painted by women).
“Captured Plains warriors were imprisoned in a penitentiary in Florida in 1875,” shares John. “The US Government gave them used paper from old ledger books with some crayons and pencils to draw with. While Plains people had traditionally used earth pigments to paint scenes on hides, these warriors adapted, continuing to tell their stories but with these new materials.” The use of ledger paper became widespread among Plains artists, who recorded scenes of battles, horse raids, stories, and more on this highly-portable medium. Artists used ledger paper from accounting books, as well as receipts, certificates, and sometimes even currency.
This is an original ledger by an unknown Blackfeet (Piikani) warrior. It was collected in 1905 on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Today, the work is part of the Autry Museum collection: John took this photo of the work when he visited the collection in Los Angeles.
“Traditionally, only Plains men created ledger art, but now artists of all genders create ledger art. The artform has expanded beyond Plains tribes, too, and now many Native artists work on ledger paper.”
The first horse that came to the Blackfeet (Piikani) became known as the Elk Dog, revolutionizing the way the Piikani were able to hunt and becoming an integral part of everyday life on the Plains. “Horses were vital to the Plains way of life,” says John. “Hunting, war, traveling—we used horses for all of it. Horses often appeared on traditional ledger art as part of the battle and hunting stories Blackfeet artists told, they were that important to our lifestyle.”
Emulating the breathtaking colors of the Montana skies, John's stunning Lightning Horse Wool Blanket pays tribute to the vibrant Plains Indian horse culture. The background of John's Lightning Horse design mimics the ledger paper that Plains Indians drew and painted on. Here, John has shown the horses as they were sometimes painted before going on a hunt, raid, or into battle—with circles above their eyes to make them see farther and lightning on their bodies to make them run faster.
"Being a member of the Piikani band of the Blackfoot Confederacy, it was important to me to represent the horse on my first wool blanket. It's still such a major part of our lives on the Plains today; the Plains Indian horse culture is alive and well."
Ten blue horses streak across the page in John's Pony Express Fine Art Print. In nineteen shades of blue—from aqua to azure—these horses pay further tribute to the horse culture of the Plains people.
John drew the original Pony Express on antique silk ledger paper from a Virginia City company’s courier log dated September 2, 1891. As part of Eighth Generation's reclamation of production, we started our own fine art printing process in 2020. Our archival-quality fine art print of John’s original drawing is printed right here in our Seattle studio on acid-free paper, meaning you can enjoy this vibrant art in your own home for years to come.
Yes, absolutely! John says, "Being a collaborator with the Inspired Natives® Project means that I get to bring Plains Indian culture and ledger art to a global audience." All of Eighth Generation's products are meant to be enjoyed by everyone, no matter their race, ethnicity, or background. Native American art is the original American art—and who wouldn't want to have that displayed proudly in their home!?
For more information about ledger art, visit www.plainsledgerart.org.