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Repossessing the Past 

by Leah Sottile

Too many eviction notices, and your ass is grass. Can't make your payments? You've got a date with the repo man. But imagine if you've lost everything -- that sweet sectional couch, your coveted hot plate, the TiVo. Wouldn't revenge sound great? Or how about junking your landlord's office -- taking big fat Sharpies to the accountant's books, scribbling defiance across the desks of those whose power you'll never taste?

That's the watered-down-to-modern-day-terms gist of American Indian ledger art. Portraits of natives ride toward battle, faces striped in blue and green war paint, headdresses of feathers quivering in the wind, horses, mid-stride, whinnying in excitement -- images of defiance, of power and stonewall tenacity. And quietly peeking from the background of these pictures are words -- loopy cursive letters spelling things like hay, coal and bran, with weights and prices following.

It's only when your eyes peel themselves from the vivid color and emotion of the horses and warriors that you realize what's being depicted. These Indian drawings and paintings are laid over old ledger records of sales and purchases. And the items that these ledgers detail -- the equivalent of our repossessed couches and TiVos -- once belonged to the Indians. They were their possessions, their way of life. They were things they loved and worked hard to keep.

And they were all things taken by the white men, who then profited from the Indians' losses. Drawing and painting over the ledgers symbolizes Indian defiance. Many of these ledgers were obtained by force as well -- this time in Indian war victories.

"The ledgers were a record of the white man exploiting all of [the Indians'] resources, and over it they would superimpose their war exploits," Sue Bradley, owner of Tinman Artworks, says. "That was their way of saying that our culture prevails, and of saying, 'We are strong in spirit.'"

It's an art form that is still practiced by Indian artists today, and is one particular art form on display through this month at Tinman Artworks.

The memory of their ancestors' strength is a thread that connects these painters' very diverse paintbrushes, pens and pencils. They all want to remember, to teach and to show the fertile tradition of their family's soils.

George Flett, a Spokane Indian and longtime Tinman exhibitor, specializes in ledger art. In "Horse Stealing," Flett overlays a young warrior, regal on horseback, corralling a group of riderless steeds over a Western Union telegram. From behind Flett's stroke read the words, "Happy birthday Mama. Gift on way - Alice and Dave." The kind words of one woman's children are weak, pale in contrast to Flett's rich portrait. Here his warrior brazenly reclaims what belongs to him.

"You can see through painting, and that's important," Bradley says. "The Indian legend and story come out on top."

As a student of Flett, Terrance Guardipee uses bold, bright colors over similar ledgers. A Blackfeet Indian, Guardipee uses flat pictographs to carry on the oral tradition and the ideas of the Pikuni people.

But even more than just keeping a constant reminder of their suffering, these artists hope to preserve every part of their Indian history. Bradley says that these artists, in particular, attempt to keep the essence of their pasts and traditions alive within the context of contemporary art.

Kevin Red Star, a Crow Indian, is also in the show, and he was named the 2005 Santa Fe Artist of the year recently. Red Star doesn't specialize in ledger art like Flett and Guardipee, but more often paints portraits of warriors, men, women and tribal leaders, tribal icons and symbols. Merging the Crow tradition with contemporary art is Red Star's focus. Red Star's works are in the collections of the Smithsonian, the U.S. Department of State and museums across the country.

Chessney and Jackie Sevier, mother and daughter, are both Arapaho Indians. Chessney specializes in oil paintings and etchings, while Jackie concentrates on paper embossing and crafting small replicas of authentic Plains Indian dress. She pores over each detail -- painting every miniature bead and using real buffalo hair in her miniatures.

All of it -- the detail of Jackie's statuettes, of Red Star's square-jawed medicine men, of the merciless riders of the ledgers -- is their way of preserving the tradition, history and wisdom that made them who they are. It's their way of defying the repo man.

Publication date: 03/10/05

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