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Newly Digitized Collection of Early 20th-Century Lakota Drawings Tells a Curious History

The collection has been digitized by the Newberry Library, as part of its new open access policy.

From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14) (all images from the Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection and courtesy Newberry Library unless otherwise noted)

CHICAGO — At a glance, they may look like more conventional outsider art work, but upon closer inspection you realize these drawings contain a history of a community that was actively being erased by the United States. Many show scenes of warfare and hunting, vividly depicted in watercolor and colored pencils and punctuated with splashes of red.

In 1922, the Newberry Library acquired this collection of 160 drawings, attributed to “Sioux Indians” living in Fort Yates, which serves as headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The three boxes of art were sold by one Aaron McGaffey Beede, an Episcopal missionary who had provided paper and art supplies to the residents he had come to know, and paid them small sums to purchase the resulting works. This strange exchange arose from a dire situation: in the winter of 1913-14, the Lakota faced starvation from failed crops and a mysterious disappearance of cattle. These drawings, for them, carried exceptional value linked to survival; today, they represent significant records of indigenous self-representation as well as cross-cultural exchange.

From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The entire collection is now available to examine online as part of the Newberry’s new open access policy that has so far made over 1.7 digital images available for unrestricted and free use. The drawings, specifically, are part of the Edward E. Ayer Collection, which comprises artworks, books, and other materials related to American Indian history and culture.

Beede specifically desired that these drawings go to the Ayer collection, writing in a letter to the Newberry that “it is saving pictures, which will be very valuable in future that I want.” 

According to Will Hansen, the Newberry’s Curator of Americana, Beede’s commissions reflect “a strain of American Puritanism that continues to this day, which is that people should work for money.” Yet, he added, “another part of it was the desire from white Americans or European Americans to encourage Native people to document themselves and their story.” This inclination was part of the problematic, white notion at the time that Natives were a “vanishing race,” whose history and culture had to be quickly preserved. Edward Curtis, famously, was one photographer who felt the need to take on such a responsibility.

From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)

The Lakota who executed these drawings certainly trusted Beede, who had learned the Sioux language at the age of 15. Most were made by adults, with children contributing about 40. Almost all are unsigned, although Beede later added annotations directly on the drawings — a rather unceremonious way to explain the scenes. In a couple, he notes their creators, such as one Joseph Brownface, age 13.

Although produced with crude material, the drawings closely recall the Plains pictorial tradition seen on hide paintings. Many of them were done on recycled paper from school notebooks or primers — all “evocations of directed culture change through education,” as Castle McLaughlin, curator of North American Ethnography at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology told Hyperallergic.

While the appearance of some exotic animals such as lions and camels show the influence of these textbooks, the artworks mostly depict scenes of everyday life, from ritual dances to hunting of animals such as horses, foxes, and, notably, buffalo. There are also courting scenes, as well as a child’s picture referencing the late-19th-century movement known as the Ghost Dance.

“All of these are retrospective views of traditional life, and done about 30 years after the last bison hunt at Standing Rock,” McLaughlin said. “That is where I would locate the response to the ‘starving time,’ because many of those I looked at show times of independence and plenty, as represented by the hunting scenes.”

The graphic depictions of wounds, she added, are not unusual and can be traced to the earliest ledger drawings of the 1860s. Battle wounds, specifically, were considered war honors. As for the presence of blood splatters, “as opposed to a more controlled indication of blood,” McLaughlin said, this could be attributed to the influence of non-Native artwork and the “growing emphasis on artistic expression and individuality over conventional image vocabularies and techniques.”

From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)

It’s likely that the Newberry displayed the drawings shortly after it acquired them. However, they have since remained in the archives for decades. The library’s recently implemented open-access policy provides an opportunity to study them closely, and soon, visitors will be also be able to examine them in person. Hansen said that he plans to place the collection on view once ongoing renovations to the library’s first floor wrap up this June.

They will reside in the ground floor’s new exhibition space, which will host a new display every 12 weeks. The Newberry aims to organize this programming in such a way that Native American-produced works comprise three out of every four rotations. Aside from the Sioux drawings, Hansen hopes to show the “Black Horse Ledger,” drawings by the Kiowa artist Silver Horn, and artworks by the Pueblo painter Awa Tsireh. Giving indigenous material such visibility is significant, particularly at the Newberry, where the majority of Native-related material in its collection was produced by settler-colonizers or Europeans. Such gestures reflect the institution’s awareness of absences within its holdings, and represent important steps towards decolonizing the archives.

“I seriously try to, with the endowment funds we have, acquire a fair amount of Native-produced artwork and a variety of works of contemporary Native people,” Hansen said. “As someone who’s collecting now, I think about building the collection to add things from their perspective, rather than more writing about them.”

From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
From a collection of drawings by Sioux Indians (1931-14)
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