Northern Cheyenne Plea for Innocence and Equality

Northern Cheyenne Ledger; 1879
Gift of Sallie Straughn
Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka
See a full version of the object at
Paper, pencil, crayon, watercolor

In 1879, a group of seven Northern Cheyenne men—Wild Hog, Porcupine, Old Crow, Strong Left Hand, Noisy Walker (or Old Man), Tangle Hair, and Blacksmith—imprisoned in Dodge City, Kansas, filled this ledger with drawings of animals, warriors, and Cheyenne men courting Cheyenne women. On the first page of the ledger we see a mother bear standing over her cub. Many pages focus on different animals with their young. There are also a number of courting scenes in the ledger. The second page, for example, shows five Cheyenne women in courting blankets. The notebook is 3.25 inches by 5 inches, about the size of a notecard, and features colorful images of Cheyenne life and culture in primary colors and simplicity of line, created with pencil, crayon, and watercolor.

Typically, each left page offers a drawing in the direction of the reading process, while the drawing on the right page is upside down. This page organization follows characteristic narrative structures of traditional Plains Indians’ hide painting practiced before the tribes of the Midwest were forced on reservations in the 1870s. The Northern Cheyenne were resisted removal to reservations for the longest. The seven Northern Cheyenne men attempted to avoid American forces, but the army arrested them, imprisoned them in Dodge City, and charged them with 40 counts of murder. Traditionally, Cheyenne warrior artists created drawings to visually tell stories of combat. However, the seven imprisoned Cheyenne consciously focused on peaceful scenes and personal experiences, including a female point of view. They later traded, sold, and gifted the ledgers to visitors, such as Sallie Straughn, whose husband served as a prison warden in Dodge City. Straughn likely circulated the ledger among white townspeople, which made a powerful claim for Cheyenne art and culture. The Northern Cheyenne men were eventually acquitted for the murders and sent to the reservation to join the survivors of their tribe. 

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Joshua Porteous