LOS ANGELES — “I almost cried when I saw the Rainey Mountain drawing,” said Tahnee Ahtone, director of the Kiowa Tribal Museum. “Here is where our life changed.” Ahtone, who is of Kiowa and Mvskoke descent, had come to Bonhams Auction House in Los Angeles to look at a series of four drawing books featured in an upcoming auction of Native American art and artifacts. “From the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande: the Collection of Roy H. Robinson” features hundreds of items — textiles, tomahawks, cradles, beaded bags, and pottery — collected from communities across North America. But the so-called “ledger books,” created by Cheyenne and Kiowa artists once imprisoned by the US, are perhaps the most unique, and their inclusion in the sale the most contentious.
On Monday, Chairman of the Kiowa Tribe Lawrence SpottedBird sent Bonhams a letter requesting that the books be pulled from the auction, set to take place Wednesday, October 26 and Thursday, October 27. “The Tribe is especially concerned about the lack of information about the provenance of the ledger books created by Kiowa prisoners of the United States government, and the chain of custody of the objects including how the books were originally transferred from the prisoner(s) to another person,” the letter reads. “The Kiowa items that Bonhams has scheduled for auction represent objects of significant cultural patrimony related to the Tribe’s history and culture — items which we believe may have been wrongfully acquired.”
The books, each estimated to sell between $80,000 and $120,000, are examples of “ledger art,” practiced predominantly among Plains Indians beginning in the mid-19th century. Named for the type of paper these artists drew on, ledger art chronicled battles, ceremonies, and daily life that was rapidly changing. The artists of the four books featured in the auction — Bear’s Heart (Nock-ko-ist, Cheyenne), Ohet-Toint (High Forehead, Kiowa), and Etahdleuh Doanmoe (Kiowa) — were among a group of over 70 Kiowa, Cheyenne, Caddo, Comanche, and Arapaho warriors imprisoned at Fort Marion in Florida between 1875 and 1878 after the Red River War, a campaign by the US Army to remove groups of Plains Indians from their lands and relocate them to Indian Territory.
The drawings portray scenes of warfare, the long trip from their homelands to Florida as prisoners, and life under incarceration; the “Rainey Mountain drawing” invoked by Ahtone depicts the surrender of the Kiowa, including one of her ancestors, near Rainey Mountain Creek on February 23, 1875.
According to the Bonhams auction catalogue, the books were gifted to Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple from Richard Henry Pratt, a US Army officer who oversaw the prison at Fort Marion and founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879, the first off-reservation boarding school for Native Americans. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was the phrase he infamously uttered regarding his efforts to educate and “civilize” Native Americans, and he used the ledger books created at the prison — which he often purchased from inmates — as evidence that his strategy of assimilation was successful. Robinson, the collector, acquired the books from the estate of Bishop Whipple’s widow in 1933.
When reached by Hyperallergic, a Bonhams spokesperson said the auction house was unable to provide comment. The sale appears to be moving forward — a decision some members of the Native community believe is unethical.
“The problem with Bonhams is that they take the word of consignors in terms of provenance, and never reach out to tribes to determine if there is a claim,” Shannon O’Loughlin (Choctaw), the CEO of the Association on American Indian Affairs, told Hyperallergic. “That leaves the tribes a huge burden to have to prove that these are sensitive items that have been stolen.”
“Even items that were removed by Native peoples from their own nations to sell, if it is an item of cultural patrimony, it’s the nation’s culture,” O’Loughlin continued. “Only the nation can authorize that removal … Auction houses have a moral and ethical requirement to act in good faith about legal title.”
Ross Frank, a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), digitizes ledger art through his Plains Indian Ledger Art project, making it accessible online.
“What’s always lost when we talk about Fort Marion is that these are incarcerated people. The method of incarceration was extralegal,” Frank said. “These people did not go through a court, they were accused of war crimes, but they were not tried. They were summarily appointed to stand in as hostages to people at the losing end of the Red River War.”
Frank has been granted permission by Bonhams to provide high-level scans of these four books on his site, but he describes this as “the last resort.” “You want to make sure whatever happens to them, there is a record of them in their entirety,” Frank added. He noted that he is not aware of any historical ledger art books owned by a Native institution.
The main federal law that allows for repatriation of certain Native American objects, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), only applies to federal agencies or museums that receive federal funds, so the Bonhams auction items fall outside of its jurisdiction. The STOP (Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony) Act, which passed the House last December, would broaden the scope of protected items, especially overseas. Federal laws notwithstanding, Frank notes that “there is a moral and historical reason for people to think about these transactions in a more encompassing manner than market capitalism generally affords.”
“My first suggestion would be to have the seller gift it to us, returning it back home to where it rightfully belongs,” Gordon Yellowman, culture and language program director of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, told Hyperallergic. “That way it helps with education. It all started with education,” he adds, noting the connection to the first Indian boarding schools.
“That way our students can benefit from these pieces of art. Those drawings have a cultural value. Auction houses look at monetary value. Cultural value always outweighs money.”
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