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Modern Ledger Art

Caddo Women by Dolores Purdy Corcoran, 2007The artist describes this painting as a "contemporary work done in historical fashion, dealing with a contemporary issue."

American Indian art and artifacts have fascinated non-native people since Columbus first stepped off the boat in the "New World." Unfortunately, Indian objects often have been forcibly taken from the people who created them. Items have been stolen from graves and sold to collectors and even to museums.

In an attempt to correct this problem, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. While earlier laws attempted to end the destruction of important sites and prevent trafficking of stolen items, NAGPRA required museums and other agencies to return objects of cultural significance to the tribe of origin. Thousands of human remains, funerary objects and items of cultural patrimony have been repatriated to native peoples across the United States since this law took effect.

Dolores Purdy Corcoran

Issues surrounding NAGPRA inspired this artwork, titled Caddo Women Taking Repatriation of Ghost Dance Pole Into Their Own Hands. The artist, Dolores Purdy Corcoran, addresses the frustration felt by many native peoples when petitioning for the return of important objects. Corcoran is an American Indian artist who has lived in Topeka much of her life. Her father was Caddo and Winnebago, and she grew up hearing stories about her heritage during visits to relatives in Oklahoma. Formally trained in watercolor, she has seen many examples of historic ledger art and uses it as the foundation for her own work.

Ledger art is the practice of drawing pictographs on the pages of ledgers, most famously done by a group of warriors from the Caddo and various Plains nations who were imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, during the mid-1870s. Also called warrior art, ledger art was traditionally done by men, particularly during the 1870s and 1880s as Indians were being moved onto reservations by the federal government. The Kansas Historical Society's collections include two ledgers drawn by Northern Cheyenne warrior-artists confined to the Dodge City jail in 1878.

Corcoran paints in the traditional ledger art style, working with colored pencils on old ledger pages. Caddo Women is drawn on paper from an 1890s ledger. It depicts five Caddo women rescuing a Ghost Dance pole from three looters. Though they wear traditional dance regalia, the female figures represent modern women trying to keep Caddo traditions and culture alive. The men giving chase are labeled "Pot Hunter," "Grave Robber," and "Artifact Thief." They have disguised themselves in official uniforms to escape detection on federal lands while looting. The green and black Ghost Dance pole is a figurative example of the types of artifacts pothunters often steal. It is based on a real Ghost Dance pole repatriated to the Caddo Nation in 2002.

This modern work was purchased from the artist and is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Modern Ledger Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2008

Date Modified: January 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.