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Homecoming: Contemporary Artist Chris Pappan Redefines Plains Indian Ledger Art

A profile of Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Sioux), whose modern take on Plains ledger art is on exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas.

Chicago-based artist Chris Pappan says it was something of a homecoming for him when he recently came to Kansas, once the homeland of his ancestors, the Kanza (or Kaw) Indians.

'Kaw II' by Chris Pappan

'Kaw II' by Chris Pappan

Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Sioux) was in Lawrence October 19th for the opening of "Heartland Reverberations," an exhibition presented by the Spencer Museum of Art as part of the Kansas Sesquicentennial. The Spencer invited artists from descendant American Indian communities that were relocated out of Kansas to display works on issues of identity, place and relocation.

Pappan is one of five artists invited by the Spencer for this installation, which also features commissioned works by Norman Akers, Bunky Echo-Hawk, Ryan Red Corn and Dianne Yeahquo Reyner.

Displaced persons
Pappan is originally from Flagstaff, Arizona. He later moved to Santa Fe and studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts. His “displaced persons” series at the Spencer depicts historical images of American Indians overlayed on maps. The images are distorted, he says, to reflect the distorted image of Indians in contemporary culture and the way Indians themselves sometimes perpetuate the distortions, such as the stereotype of “the mystical Indian.”

Pappan says his work on maps directly stems from the influence of Plains Indian ledger art. He says he first came into contact with contemporary ledger paper while he was working at an art gallery. He researched actual ledger art books and found similarities to his own work in terms of composition and repeated images.

Then he had his epiphany: He wanted to take ledger art into a different direction. “Just as the ledger is a record of deeds and services," he says, "the map is a record of land stolen.”

Art born from a prison
In the period roughly between 1860 and 1900, Plains Indians were experiencing the forced relocation to reservations and the depletion of buffalo as a principal means of livelihood.

In 1874, a group of Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Caddo warriors took a stand against the U.S. Army to protect the last free herd of buffalo and to assert their sovereignty in what became known as the Red River (or Buffalo) War. The suspected leaders of the Red River War were subsequently imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.

During this time, narrative, representational Plains Indian art moved from hides to paper, which came in the form of accounting ledger books provided to the prisoners. From 1875 to 1878, many of the Fort Marion prisoners became prolific ledger artists. Some of these artists were Howling Wolf (Cheyenne), Etahdleuh Doanmoe (Kiowa), White Bear (Arapaho) and Making Medicine (Cheyenne).

Subject matter of early ledger art on hides typically included winter counts, or pictorial calendars of important tribal events and depictions of battle exploits. But as social and cultural changes occurred, artists began to add scenes of ceremony and daily life.

The power of ledger art lies in the ironic juxtaposition of images, the transformation of the books’ pages into canvases of artistic and political statements. In more than one sense of the word, ledger art was revolutionary.

Detail of a piece created by metalsmith Keri Ataumbi and designer Jamie Okuma. Source:

'Kanza/Osage' by Chris Pappan

“It’s political,” Pappan says. “A lot of the ledger art is basically prison art. I think that in itself is a political statement.”

Pappan also said the ledger books were the first introduction to paper for many Indians. “It totally changed the way they thought about doing art.”

More than 200 books of historical ledger art still exist in institutional and private collections, according to the Plains Indian Ledger Art website, though they are in extremely fragile condition.

Pappan says ledger art resonates with contemporary artists because it stems from tradition and the idea of taking anything you have and turning it into art. “There’s so much being said with a little drawing on paper. It’s not complicated. It’s not convoluted. It’s a very down to earth kind of thing.”

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He creates what he calls 21st century ledger drawings. Pappan has worked on antique ledger paper, but has also used contemporary ledger paper, mechanical pencils, and computer programs. He searches for the hard-to-find antique paper on the Internet, at antique shops and estate sales.

Who defines Indian art?
In a 1958 art competition, the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma rejected one of the innovative works of Oscar Howe, an influential Yanktonai Dakota painter (1915-1983) for not being a “traditional Indian painting.” In a letter of protest, Howe wrote:

“Are we to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been…I only hope the Art World will not be one more contributor to holding us in chains.”

Lola Cody with the woven wool rug that took Best of Show honors at the 2014 Santa Fe Indian Market.

'Return To SugarLoaf' by Chris Pappan

This kind of battle continues today, says Pappan, noting that some ledger artists are strong traditionalists and believe it has to be done in a certain way. He recalled once having a piece rejected under the category of ledger art at the Sante Fe Indian Art Market because it didn’t have a depiction of a warrior on a horse. “It’s still an on-going struggle.”

The struggle, he says, is between the artists and those who control the whole bureaucracy and politics of Native Art, the museums, curators and art markets. “I have that right to define it the way I want.”

The people of the south wind
Kansas became a state on January 29, 1861. The state and the Kansas River took its name from the Kanzas, a name meaning “people of the south wind.”

Pappan says he began to notice how the name of Kansas is perceived while watching the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz with his nine-year-old daughter. “It’s actually not something people think about. For me, it’s totally different.”

“Kansas gets its name from our people, the Kaw,” he says.

Though the film is often affectionately poked fun at, its primal theme of the quest to return home resonates with Pappan, who currently resides in Chicago. “I’m kind of wandering and lost and trying to find my way,” he says. “It will be a whole lifelong learning process for me.”

Pappan references lines from the movie in the titles of his works, “Kansas, she said, is the name of her star,” “There’s no place like home,” and “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“We’re still here.”
The Kaws had lived in northeast Kansas since the late 1600s. A series of treaties in the 1800s dramatically reduced Kaw territory in Kansas. The tribe’s population, once in the thousands, suffered the ravages of disease and starvation and at one time dwindled to less than 200 members.

The remaining Kaws were removed from Kansas to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory in 1872. In Oklahoma, the Kaw Allotment Act of 1902 legally terminated the tribe until federal reorganization in 1959.

Today, the Kaw Nation is a federally recognized tribe with more than 3,000 members. Its administrative headquarters are in Kaw City, Oklahoma.

One of those in attendance at the exhibit’s opening was Pauline Sharp, a descendant of Chief Washunga, who was principal chief of the Kaws from 1873 until his death in 1908 and a subject of Pappan’s work.

Sharp, who traveled from Wichita to see the exhibit, said she appreciated the message of Pappan’s work. “As hard as they tried to exterminate the Indians, we’re still here.”

"Heartland Reverberations" is made possible by a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and runs at the Spencer Museum of Art until January 2012.