Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935 by Janet Catherine Berlo

It is one of the tragic ironies of history that United States military men on the Plains, sent to wipe out Native culture, were intensely interested in the drawings they plundered from dead warriors on battlefields and commissioned from Indian scouts as mementos of their days in "Indian country." That the indigenous people were killed and their art valued as relics of a vanishing civilization is one of the many perverse paradoxes of the late 19th century anti-Indian campaigns. Along with beadwork and hide painting, examples of which military men collected, drawing books were an especially coveted type of relic, for they directly documented the wars themselves.

To make a picture can be a revolutionary act, an autobiographical act, and act of covert resistence. It can be a way of mourning the past, and fixing it in historical time as well. While many artists made drawings for sale to outsiders to earn money during a time of poverty, dislocation, and outright starvation, it has been too little appreciated that the act of making even those drawings intended for sale also held profound meaning for those who made them. It is an act of resistance to chronicle the old ways and keep them alive.

The eloquent images made by Plains Indian graphic artists in the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century speak to us today on many levels about Native history, oppression, resistence, autonomy, and artistry. In their sheer beauty, they also speak eloquently about the powerful urge to draw. We are still just beginning to limn their many meanings.