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Arts & Life

Ledger Art: from Buffalo Hides to Accounting Books

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 A Native American art exhibit in Sioux Falls showcases an art form that was almost forgotten. Native Americans once used buffalo hides to record history through paintings. When the buffalo herds were hunted to few numbers, tribes had to find a different way to tell stories. 

  

Native American ledger art is on display at the Center for Western Studies on Augustana's campus. Native American artist Donald Montileaux says tribes began repurposing the inside pages of old ledger books during the late 1800s.  

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Ledger art by Donald Montileaux is on display in the Center for Western Studies.

“Once the buffalo were gone, since our whole culture was based on imagery and storytelling, we needed something that would substitute for the buffalo hide. So we bartered for used ledger books from store keepers and soldiers and since the writing had no meaning at all to us, we would put images right on top of them. And in this way we preserved our culture and our ceremonies,” said Montileaux.

Today Montileaux still uses ledger books dating back to the 1870s for his artwork.

His colorful paintings most often capture scenes of warriors and horses. Montileaux says the painter Herman Red Elk was a large influence on his work.

“He was telling me a story about warriors as they were sitting on top of a hill getting ready to attack and he said each one has a little pouch underneath the chin of the horse that’s filled with herbs and spices,” Montileaux says. “And just as they were going down the hill they would pull that pouch into their horse’s mouth and it would give that horse a burst of speed and they would just fly down that hill. And as soon as he said “fly down that hill,” my horses never lopped or galloped again. My horses fly.”

Montileaux says the art form was forgotten by many Native Americans as the 1870s was a dark period in Native American history. But 20 years ago Montileaux revitalized ledger art and today there are over 200 ledger artists across the country.

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Ledger art by Jim Yellowhawk on display in the Center for Western Studies.

The exhibit is free and open to the public through Saturday.