Some of the best-known 19th-century ledger art was created by Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, and Caddo prisoners of war at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, following the Red River Wars. While many of the drawings depict battles and traditional ceremonies, others reflect personal stories of relocation. One of these collections, made in 1875 by the Southern Cheyenne warrior Bear’s Heart, shows a personal journey from the Great Plains to imprisonment in Florida. For the first time in five decades, Bear’s Heart’s drawings are going on public view in Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains, opening March 12 at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in New York.
Bear’s Heart, unlike other ledger artists who used discarded accounting ledgers, had his own drawing book, in which he sketched 24 different scenes with graphite and crayon. Fort Marion was under the command of Richard Henry Pratt, who used the confinement of the former warriors as an opportunity to enforce a Western “civilizing” education, with 26 prisoners creating ledger art.
Pratt later distributed many of these ledgers, such as Bear’s Heart’s book to William Tecumseh Sherman, to rally support for further education through the Carlisle Indian School. While Bear’s Heart worked under Pratt’s eye (and Pratt’s titles accompany his drawings in cursive script), it’s still a powerful record of an individual’s lost way of life, and experience as a prisoner.
“One of the things that happened was while Bear’s Heart was in prison at Fort Marion, is they discovered that a lot of the prisoners could draw, so they were allowed to draw in these books,” Unbound curator Emil Her Many Horses told Hyperallergic. “They were able to sell them to tourists, and then Pratt used them as a means for gaining support for the Indian education.”
Bear’s Heart’s work is one of many examples of historic and modern narrative art in Unbound, whether an 1840 shirt with beads and porcupine quills conveying a war scene, or contemporary work commissioned specifically for the exhibition by artists like Dwayne Wilcox, Dallin Maybee, and Terrance Guardipee. “What I wanted to explain in the show is that narrative art is telling a story, even if it’s not the traditional war, courting, or ceremonial scenes,” Her Many Horses said.
In Bear’s Heart’s drawings, you see the warriors riding over a train bridge in St. Louis, and transferring to a steamboat in Jacksonville. The St. Augustine harbor is depicted in great detail with its lighthouse painted with a black and white spiral, and tall ships riding by the shore. A memory of Cheyennes hunting buffalo is followed by the Cheyenne camp where people stand watching at tipis while white men ride stage coaches through. Later, there’s the formation of an Indian guard at Fort Marion, as, Her Many Horses explained, “Pratt felt that military discipline was important, so he had their hair cut, and they were put into military clothing.” It was here, Her Many Horses added, that “the prisoners realize that their older way of life is no longer possible.”
The Southern setting was also a shock in more than just a cultural sense for people from the Great Plains. In one drawing, Bear’s Heart captured the excitement of fishing for sharks. There was also the darker fact that the heat and humidity caused widespread illness, and many fatalities. Bear’s Heart himself died in 1882 from tuberculosis, after attending the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia and returning to the new Cheyenne Arapaho reservation in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
“I just think that it’s a very valuable piece to have in the exhibition, as it’s telling about the experiences of someone from that time period, the things they’ve encountered and faced,” Her Many Horses said.
Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains is March 12 to December 4, 2016 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York (One Bowling Green, Financial District, Manhattan).