Lakota Ledger Artist Visits Class as Part of Lesson on Heritage Art

posted on February 11, 2014 

On a recent winter afternoon, Red Cloud fourth grader, Nevaya, sat drawing out a story on lined ledger paper, a well known Oglala Lakota ledger artist Dwayne Wilcox sat nearby, guiding her. When she finished her drawings, she shyly handed him her paper. Looking down at her work, he smiled broadly and said, “I could frame this and sell it alongside mine!”

Dwayne’s visit was one more initiative launched by The Heritage Center’s Education Department, which is working with teachers and students across the reservation to integrate Native art and culture with academic learning. During this classroom experience, fourth graders at Red Cloud had the opportunity to explore the history and meaning of ledger art, which involves drawing narratives on lined ledger paper from accounting books. 

Historically, Native people on the Great Plains painted narratives and stories on animal hides to record important events, identify familial ties or to express acts of courage in battle. During the late 19th century, as traders, government agents and military offers settled on the Plains, tribal members began painting and drawing on the ledger paper that was increasingly available. The art form became less common after the 1920’s, but experienced a resurgence in the 1960’s. Today, artists like Dwayne Wilcox are using this historic art form to express the contemporary realities facing Lakota people.  

The Heritage Center’s Museum Educator, Brandie Macdonald, says using ledger art in the classroom has tremendous educational value for Native students.

“Ledger art is amazing resource for teaching in the classroom. While the art itself has historical ties to the Lakota community through its historical significance and through contemporary works—there are also lessons that easily meet the South Dakota Common Core teaching standards embedded within the work,” she explains. 

“Through exploring ledger art, these students practiced their reading skills by reading through the ledger documents, one of which outlined historic delegations of Lakota leaders traveling to Washington, DC. By examining what was said in the document, students were then able evaluate what was going on at that time in history based on the reading.”

Brandie explains that each piece of ledger art contains historical information, from the date and location of where it was originally created to details on the clothing, transportation and economic realities of the time period. During the program, fourth graders explored these artistic works with a critical eye, and discussed how economic and social factors have changed over time. They then moved to Red Cloud Elementary’s library to research some of the historic figures they read about in the ledger art. 

But beyond being a history lesson, students also learned how to read about art through a lesson in The Heritage Center’s gallery.

“We worked with students to determine who created the work, the name of each piece, the year it was made and which medium they used to produce it,” says Brandie. “Students then were able to go into The Heritage Center’s main gallery to use this new skill to look at the collection in a new, informed way.”

For the finale of their lesson, students returned to their classroom, where Dwayne Wilcox spoke to them about the creation of ledger art, it’s relevance to their culture, and how to create their own. Brandie, Dwayne and teacher Ms. Claire helped students develop a new comfort with art and pride in their culture. 

“It’s important to know both our shared history and your own contemporary history,” Dwayne said to the students as they drew and colored with pencils and crayons. 

By teaching young students about the history and technique of ledger art, Dwayne believes that the next generation will be better equipped to tell their own stories and write their own history.

“I’ve been to more than 160 classrooms over my career—from university to kindergarten. And I’ve always been impressed with elementary school student’s ability to tell stories and work with the art form. I’m not sure what the future of ledger art will look like, but I think it will always be a way for our people to document our history through our drawings.”


Read more about The Heritage Center’s Educational Program. 

All Content, ©Red Cloud Indian School, 2014