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Ledger art preserved by digitalization project

SAN DIEGO - One day in 1994, Ross Frank, professor of ethnic studies at University of California - San Diego, was leafing through a Sotheby's catalog when he noted that a ledger book of mid-1800 Cheyenne-Arapahoe drawings had sold at auction for $90,000. The new owner planned to disassemble the book and sell each drawing separately.

Realizing this would disrupt the book's overall context, Frank went to look at the book before it was dismantled. After seeing the artwork within its 94 pages, he obtained permission to digitally scan it. His intention was to preserve the book intact as an important historical document - a chronicle of life and times illustrated by Indian historians.

A few months later, Frank had an opportunity to scan another ledger. This artist was Black Hawk, a Sans Arc Lakota. Black Hawk sketched events of the harsh winter of 1880 - '81 on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and how the Lakota endured it.

Scanning these ledgers set Frank on a critical mission, and the Plains Indian Ledger Art Digital Publishing Project was born. His goal was to digitize as much ledger art as possible, making it more accessible for scholarly study and public enjoyment while safeguarding its important history for future Native generations.

Ledger art originated in the mid-1800s with increased interaction between Indians, the military, traders and agents. Ledger books were often obtained by warriors through raids or as battlefield spoils. Artist-warriors then filled empty or partially used ledgers with drawings depicting heroic deeds of warriors and warrior society rituals.

''The process wasn't always direct,'' Frank said. ''Not all warriors were good artists, so someone in the band was usually commissioned to record the deeds of the others.''

Ledgers were also distributed to Indian prisoners, such as those held at Florida's Fort Marion prison in 1875. Intent on their assimilation, Richard Henry Pratt rounded up Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche and Caddo warriors, sending them to Fort Marion in shackles. They were issued uniforms and ledger books to record their former lives as warriors and hunters.

Pratt used the drawings to convince officials of the civilizing effects of his penal reform experiment. Ledgers were later distributed to students at Pratt's Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

''Throughout American history,'' Frank said, ''Indianess was needed to define the civility of the United States in contrast to the savage threat of the Native population. For Pratt, the art was a propaganda tool; for the prisoners, drawing their current situations and telling their stories provided a therapeutic means of expression.''

In the 1880s, ledger art subject matter changed. Plains tribes were gradually confined to reservations and tribal artists began sketching new experiences, daily reservation life and religious practices.

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By 1900, the ledger art phenomenon waned, but its spirit was revived in a new style of art embraced by the Kiowa Five known as the ''Oklahoma School,'' featuring flat planes of color and bold figures reminiscent of ledger art.

Most ledger artists used colored pencils or wax crayons, but occasionally utilized pens for fine detail. Frank estimated that there are some 200 - 400 ledger books in existence. Today, they are highly prized by collectors and scholars alike.

''The first comprehensive look at ledger art in the 1960s focused on the Fort Marion drawings. In the 1980s, Indian art in general increased in value and collectability. Ledger art was part of that phenomenon,'' Frank said. Single pages now sell for $8,000 to $25,000. Intact books fetch up to $250,000.

The complete manuscripts which have been digitized are placed on the PILA Web site, where scholars and the public may access them free of charge. Valued as written testimonies to the changing social conditions Indians experienced in the 19th century, the scanned documents can be used in comparative studies and also accessed by subject matter, artist or tribe.

Aside from digitizing books and pieces held by collectors, Frank also makes himself available to scan ledgers handed down through generations to Indian families for preservation.

''Ledgers are scattered across the country in private and public collections. Relatives of the artists hold some; people hear about the project and bring their book to me to be scanned. I'm happy to do it and will even travel to wherever they are to scan and preserve them, or make arrangements to have them scanned them at no cost.''

Initial support for the PILA project came from a seed grant and out of Frank's own pocket. That has since been supplemented with private donations - additional funding being generated by online sales of high-resolution printed ledger art images, and less expensive prints and stationary items.

To accomplish this, Frank partnered with Robert Wright, owner of one of the largest fine art galleries in San Diego.

''This project has so much of my passion,'' Wright said. ''I have been working on the second book of three that PILA has completed, the Walter Bone Shirt collection. Bone Shirt created it on the Rosebud Reservation about 1887 - '88. This book is absolutely amazing for its originality and the images depicted. PILA also has limited-edition prints available as well.''

The project's short-term goal is to scan 40 more books and place them in its online database within the next few years. There is some urgency in the work, as many of the ledgers are deteriorating with age. ''Ledger paper was inexpensive to begin with and not well bound,'' Frank said. ''The books are often quite fragile.''

For more information on PILA, or to find out how to have ledger art digitized free of charge, visit the PILA Web site at