Water in Native American Ledger Art

Mar 8, 2017

A well dressed man, his braids wrapped in otter fur, wears a bright red blanket. He accosts a woman wearing a fancy belt and dress.
Credit Northern Cheyenne leader Wild Hog / Mandeville Library and Plains Indian Ledger Art Publishing Project

Cheyenne people, who are two nations today, Southern and Northern, live in Oklahoma and Montana. Their 19th century relatives drew glyphic images on hide and then paper, often ledger books obtained from traders. Water in a plains ledger art scenery has importance in surprising ways.

Water is essential for courtship. Young women fetched water for their families every morning and evening, so

The presence of a bucket suggests a romantic tryst as in this image of a couple with a water bucket apparently floating beside them.
Credit Northern Cheyenne leader Wild Hog / Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society

references to water suggests trysts. George Bird Grinnell writes about courtship, a woman would appear unchaperoned, “on her way to get wood or water.” The man “stepped up beside her, and threw his arms and his blanket around her, quite covering her person with the blanket. Then he held her fast and began to talk with her.” (Grinnell 1, 132; Wild Hog-Schoyen, plate 9). In an image attributed to Northern Cheyenne leader Wild Hog, a well-dressed man, his braids wrapped in otter fur, wears a bright red blanket. He accosts a woman wearing a fancy belt and dress. Her legs and face are painted red. This is no chance meeting, as both are dressed up. In the image, a blue circle represents a spring or small lake. Dashes lead away from the blue water, which are her steps. The steps meander, indicating the leisurely walk of the courting couple. They are in no rush to part company.

Even the presence of a bucket suggests a romantic tryst, as in an image of a couple with a water bucket apparently floating beside them (KSHS-WH plate 6). Its presence lets readers know this is key moment of the couple’s courtship.

Both of these images are from ledgers attributed to Wild Hog, whose wife Ot-tum-mi-ne, also known as Standing Side (Pine Ridge 1888 census), was a companion through the Fort Robinson Breakout of 1879 and into their final years of reservation life. They had surviving descendants who are Northern Cheyenne tribal members. This courtship succeeded, and water, the essence of life, is a clear association.

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is an on-line, on-air community of readers exploring themes of common interest to those who live and work on the High Plains.  You’ll see the ledger art Denise references at hpprradioreaders.org or find us on Facebook.  The 2017 Spring Read’s theme is Water and Replenishment .  We’re readingh William Ainsworth’s nonfiction work Ogallala Blue- Water and Life on the Great Plains.

Grinnell, George Bird. The Cheyenne Indians. Vol. 1. Yale University Press, 1923.

Momaday, N. Scott. The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Viking, 1977.

Wild Hog Ledger-Kansas State Historical Society “Pictures Drawn by Wild Hog and Other Cheyenne Indians.” Kansas Memory.org, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply. http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/208521/page/6

Wild Hog Ledger-Schoyen, Plate 9, page 7. Mandeville Library and Plains Indian Ledger Art Publishing Project, U.C. San Diego, La Jolla, California. PILA.org. View the complete book at plainsledgerart.org. https://plainsledgerart.org/plates/view/2641

The floating image of a water bucket beside a couple suggests a romantic tryst.
Credit Northern Cheyenne leader Wild Hog / Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society