Reading The Ledger
The unassuming notebook stands at 3.25 inches by 5 inches, and it is barely bigger than a notecard. The cover of the ledger is tan with a dark brown line framing the book and a dark brown crest in the middle. However, the inside contains the more interesting details: drawings from the Northern Cheyenne men imprisoned in Dodge City. The colorful images start on the inside of the front cover. The ledger looks as if the artists wrote on the left hand pages first, then flipped the ledger and wrote on the left hand pages again until they reached the end of the booklet. As a result, each page now shows one drawing right side up and the other opposite page is upside down, depending on the direction you are reading. In total, the ledger holds 113 depictions of people. Forty-six of these are male and sixty-seven are female. Fifty-seven of these drawings are Cheyenne men shown courting a woman in some fashion. Thirty-six people are depicted in a group, perhaps representing a dance or some other type of gathering. Twenty are shown as Cheyenne warriors. Out of these twenty warriors there is only one depiction of combat. In the combat picture we see a Northern Cheyenne man on horseback charging at two Crow gunmen. All other warrior depictions merely display Cheyenne men in their combat attire.
The Northern Cheyenne men held at the Dodge City jail had been charged with forty counts of murder, which is why we need to read these ledgers as a clever rhetorical intervention and testament to their peaceful behavior and intentions. By drawing the ledger, the Cheyenne men made a case for themselves against their accusers while purposefully fashioning their public perception themselves. As mentioned before, the ledger only depicts twenty warriors and only one Northern Cheyenne man in combat against two Crow men. In other words, the Cheyenne artists were careful not to show scenes of indigenous violence against United States soldiers. In fact, the drawings depict the Cheyenne as a peaceful, amiable group. Thirty-six Cheyenne are shown as standing in groups, representing the importance community held within the tribe. Fifty-seven Cheyenne men are shown courting, thus engaged in the psychological opposite of war, love. The high number of women depicted also speaks to the tribe’s matrilineal organization. There are 1.5 times as many women depicted than men, even though men created the ledger. By creating these kinds of drawings, the men were not distancing themselves from their cultural background, but rather emphasizing the side of their culture that sought peace and restoration. The ledger did not promote false images, that is. The men merely tapped into the side of their culture that welcomed peace, restoration, love, and family.
Another way these Cheyenne artists avoided incriminating images was by drawing animals. Altogether we are introduced to ninety-three animals in the ledger. Two bears, three birds, two opossums, twenty-two horses, seventeen buffalo, twenty-seven elk, six turkeys, one turtle, nine owls, and four beavers are depicted. All of these animals were part of the Cheyenne’s everyday and spiritual life. There are sixteen depictions of mother and child animals, which account for thirty-two animals out of the ninety-three. The only animals that could potentially be a threat were the bears depicted in mother-and-child pairs. But in the Northern Cheyenne culture bears represent healing, so they again do not fulfill a threatening function here. Likewise, horses are never portrayed on their own. They always have a rider, whether it is together with a dressed up warrior or with a group of women covered in a courting blanket. Which is to say, the horses also serve more as decoration than as war-time steeds.
As a rule of thumb, the more often an animal is depicted, the more common its presence would have been for the Cheyenne tribe. Seventeen buffalo, for example, can be found in the ledger. The Northern Cheyenne, as mentioned earlier, had changed their lifestyle from farming and fishing to following buffalo herds. The buffalo were the Cheyenne’s primary source of livelihood. As the buffalo became more and more extinct, however, the tribe began to hunt and live off of elk. The high numbers of elk in the ledger—there are seventeen buffalo compared to twenty-seven elk depicted in the volume—can be attributed to the Cheyenne tribe starting to hunt elk instead of buffalo as their new food source.
All the animal depictions in the ledger burst with color. Though the Cheyenne men had to work with limited resources, they managed to establish a rich pallet of colors on every page of the ledger: the color red is employed 125 times, yellow is used thirty-eight times, blue is seen eighty-one times, black is used eight times, and gray is utilized 134 times. The colors give life to the blankets thrown around courting Cheyenne men and women, to warriors and their outfits, to the horses upon which the warriors ride, and to the various animals depicted. Perhaps in these detailed and colorful images the Cheyenne artists remembered a specific blanket they once possessed while living with their tribe, which is why they added a little extra red when drawing the blanket into the ledger. Maybe they were thinking about a woman they loved who wore yellow, so they included her color in their drawings. We can only imagine what might have gone through the Cheyenne’s minds as they drew the pictures in the ledger.
But the ledger speaks not just about these imprisoned Cheyenne men, but also about the general ability of the Cheyenne to adapt and transform their way of life while maintaining their cultural core. These Cheyenne warriors focus in their art on women, courting, large group gatherings, and animals because these things were just as important to them as depicting war scenes, which traditional Cheyenne drawings on hides typically displayed.