Recent Acquisitions: The Mark Lansburgh Collection of Native American Ledger Drawings

Posted on March 01, 2009  by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2009
Brian Kennedy, Director

In December 2007, the Hood Museum of Art acquired a major collection of over one hundred Native American ledger drawings. Collected over thirty years by Mark Lansburgh, Dartmouth Class of 1949, and considered the largest and most diverse collection of nineteenth-century Native American drawings in private hands, its acquisition is of exceptional importance because of the opportunity it affords for study of a period of profound cultural transition among the Plains people during the second half of the nineteenth century.

During fall 2010, Dartmouth’s Leslie Center for the Humanities will sponsor an Institute, directed by the distinguished historian Professor Colin Calloway, entitled Multiple Narratives in Plains Indian Ledger Art: The Mark Lansburgh Collection, which will involve a number of major scholars in the field, including Joyce Szabo, Jackie Rand, and Mike Cowdrey. At the same time, the Hood will present an exhibition of the ledger drawings in conjunction with the fourth installment in our series of permanent collection exhibitions, Native American Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art, from October 2010 through March 2011.

Ledger drawings represent a continuation of the tradition of Plains pictographic shorthand that was formerly executed on animal hides. As contact with Euro-Americans increased from the 1850s through the 1870s, this method of drawing was transferred to the medium of paper. Early ledger art, executed largely by men, was primarily a record of valiant deeds, a type of heraldic painting depicting warfare, hunting, and horse stealing. The genre evolved during the latter part of the nineteenth century, the beginning of the reservation era, to include scenes of social interaction such as courting and domestic life, with some drawings made for sale to outside audiences as well.

This past fall seven works were acquired to add to the Hood’s collection of ledger drawings. Of these, five are by the artist Arrow, identifiable by his name glyph. Arrow was a Southern Cheyenne warrior, a Lance Bearer of the Elk Society. His drawings are from a ledger collected in 1882 at Darlington Indian Territory, the Agency of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation. They may record the events of 1874–75, when the Southern Cheyenne were engaged in a bitter battle with U.S. soldiers to preserve their way of life as they were being forced onto reservations. For artists like Arrow, these drawings were recollections of tribal history, a means of holding on to their way of life in a period of dramatic upheaval and cultural change.

Of the two Arrow drawings featured here, plate 21 depicts a warrior who has dismounted and run into a Ute camp where he is “counting coup” on an abandoned baby. Counting coup was a war honors system, a means of tribal acknowledgment for valiant deeds. The touching of a live enemy, a baby in this depiction, ranked very high on the bravery scale. This ledger drawing was donated by Mark Lansburgh ’49 in honor of President James Wright. Plate 154 depicts courting activities, with the artist himself on the right, identified by the arrow glyph over his head. He is seen in a clandestine meeting with two eligible young women, attired in brightly colored blankets, who have gone to a spring to fetch pails of water. They are accompanied by an older female relative, depicted in muted tones, whose duty it was to prevent just this type of meeting. This drawing was given by David and Mary Alice Kean Raynolds (Dartmouth Class of 1949) in honor of President James and Susan Wright.

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Written March 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan