Ledger books: beyond finance, art

Elise Barnett

The ledger book has evolved from an organized record of fiscal transactions to an artistic communication tool and is now becoming a source of critical research.

Raylene Hinz-Penner, a member of the Washburn English department, presented her paper on the ledger book at last Tuesday’s meeting of the 2010 Washburn Research Colloquium.

With representatives from various Washburn departments in attendance, Hinz-Penner discussed the history of ledger books and how much insight they have to offer into the history of the tribes and tribe members who drew in them.

Before the ledger book, the native people drew on hide and rock. She showed a picture of a circular motif of tiny pictographs draw on a large piece of animal hide called a winter count. Winter counts were used to keep a record of years with one image added each winter that described what life was like over that year.

When settlers came to the land toting ideas of manifest destiny and ledger books, they were filled with rows and columns of purchasing records, farming notes, and other monetary transactions.

Even after the ledger books made they way into the hands of the native people, you can still see the records made by the settlers.

“This one has a record of farming implements,” said Heinz-Penner, pointing to the faded columns underneath an brightly colored painted horse. “This was drawn by a man called Howling Wolf.”

Heinz-Penner discusses in her paper that the ledger books became a collection of images used to illustrate oral stories and myths that had been passes down from generations to generations.

Heinz-Penner noted that the work of Howling Wolf is often studied because he drew throughout many different periods. His style shifts from traditional ledger drawings to a more intricate and interpretive style while he was imprisoned and then back to a more traditional style during his life on the reservation.

As ledger drawings became popular to those outside of the tribes, the commissioning of ledger art became popular. Though that did not detract from the spiritualness or expression of the work.

“Just because it’s been commissioned, doesn’t mean it’s not still a spiritual experience,” said Tom Averill, professor of creative writing in the Washburn English department.

Even after the native people could read and write, the ledger book was still a popular means of expression.

“It became a way to commemorate and hang on to ritual,” said Heinz-Penner

Contemporary ledger art is often still drawn within the rectangular dimensions of the old ledger books, but has a cleaner, more professional style as artists today are not limited to pencils and crayons.

Though the art form is still thriving and well received, Heinz-Penner believes that much can be learned by a shift in focus from art to historical record.

“It’s become clear to me that oral tradition has become a critical research source,” said Heinz-Penner. “The ledger book has become an interesting, multifaceted document.”