Visible Language Series Lecture

A War of Words: Rethinking Plains Indian "Ledger Art"

During the nineteenth century, Plains Indian warriors began to use Euroamerican pens and pencils to draw images of their war exploits on paper, often in bound “ledger books." The resulting images, known as “ledger art,” have become valued as works of art and as records of Native American perspectives on historic events and culture change.

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology presents the illustrated talk, "A War of Words: Rethinking Plains Indian 'Ledger Art'" on Thursday, April 7, 2011 at Harvard's Geological Lecture Hall (24 Oxford St.). It is part of the Peabody Museum's year-long Visible Language lecture series. A public reception will follow at the Peabody Museum.

By focusing on iconography, researchers have linked these ledger drawings to earlier pictographic traditions, making the adoption of Euroamerican media seem unproblematic and incidental. Scholarship has also concentrated on reservation-era drawings. Research on a recently discovered and early ledger at Houghton Library challenges current understandings of ledger drawings and calls attention to nineteenth-century Native understandings of Plains “ledgers” as three-dimensional objects. A comparative analysis of pre-reservation ledgers suggests that the practice of capturing and drawing on Euroamerican documents emerged in response to the perceived power of literacy during U.S. westward expansion and related military conflicts. Rather than being a Plains-wide practice of image-making, “ledger art” seems to have originated among a small group of Cheyenne and Lakota war leaders who formed hybrid bands of resistance fighters determined to oppose U.S. encroachment.

Castle McLaughlin is Associate Curator of North American Ethnography at the Peabody Museum, and co-curator of the exhibition Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West.








Ledger drawing by unknown Indian warrior, probably Lakota, ca. 1865. Detail from Half Moon ledger book. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Thursday, April 7, 2011: "A War of Words: Rethinking Plains Indian 'Ledger Art'"

Castle McLaughlin, Associate Curator of North American Ethnography, Peabody Museum

5:30 PM Geological Lecture Hall, 24 Oxford St., Cambridge, followed by a public reception at the Peabody Museum, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge


Information: 617-496-1027 or

See more about the Visible Language series.

Related Exhibition: Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West