WOMEN IN GEORGE FLETT'S LEDGER ART SINCE 2007
Traditional ledger art is a male art form, reflecting a male history. Warriors made drawings of their heroic deeds, which brought honor to them as individuals--but also to their families and their tribe. On the other hand, ledger drawings were made for private viewing at men's gatherings, where they could brag and joke about one another's conquests. (Candace S. Greene, "From Bison Robes to Ledgers: Changing Contexts in Plains Drawings," European Review of Native American Studies 18.1 : 26ff.)
Women brought honor on themselves, their families, and their tribe in complementary ways, mainly by preserving the life and customs of the tribe--raising children, digging the vegetables, butchering and cooking the meat, making the clothing and tipis, moving camp, and sometimes acting heroically on the battlefield. Indeed, there were a number of well-known women warriors. Nonetheless, women's lives and achievements were rarely depicted in traditional ledger art.
In George Flett's recent work (2004-2008), women take on important roles. Sometimes the story is told from their point of view. And sometimes they become central.
In this layered montage, Flett tells a first-person story of a warrior playing his flute as he courts a woman. He is empowered by a dream image of his Horse Chief, who led or inspired him to steal enemy horses (a major coup), bring honor to his tribe as well as himself, and become a valued suitor. The dream image is embossed into the picture and seems to come alive in the changing light.
In traditional ledger art, scenes of of courtship, combat, and hunting were connected. “Many instances can be found in which women were likened to the enemy being pursued.” (Greene, 26ff.) But the pictographic story in Flett's "While Courting" reflects the kind of reciprocal relationship that took place in traditional marriages: He offers her love and honor; she offers him reciprocal love and camas, which she dug for him.
Since Flett's story is painted in the transparent or x-ray style, we can read the set of 1944 telegrams beneath them. As a result, the face to face and spiritual communication of traditional Spokane people is contrasted with the modern form of communication, where impersonal notes about what might be personal business were tapped into morse code, sent along telegraph wires, typed out by machine, and delivered to the recipient.
This courtship scene (drawn in 2008) is more traditional, since it is shown from the warrior's point of view, which is reinforced by the photo transfer of Little Coyote in his horned bonnet from Flett's family collection. But considering the context of his 2007-2008 work, it is not a conquest scene but part of the Flett family story. Flett modeled this piece on an 1890 ledger drawing he had seen with Plateau Indian regalia and decoration.
Flett extends the ledger art tradition further by showcasing women's complementary contributions to daily life and their accomplishments. Sometimes reflecting their point of view, as in one part of "Spear in the Ground." But in the following drawings, he tells stories of women themselves.
Julyamsh is the Salish name for an annual Coeur d'Alene powwow, held on the 4th of July. The woman in this picture brings honor to her family and tribe by painting her horse, dressing it and herself in their best attire, and riding in the Grand Entry that begins the annual celebration, when many thousands of Indians and non-Indians gather at Spokane Falls, Idaho. She is empowered by a spirit horse.
The story is painted over a balance sheet that tells the story of Mrs. M. Cullacott's business dealings in August of 1903. The two stories form a cultural balance of successful women in each culture.
Since courtship ledgers were drawn for their fellow warriors, "many instances can be found in which women were likened to the enemy being pursued”—even though they held the power of choice in the actual courtship. Flett recontextualizes this courtship scene by viewing it from the woman's perspective, as she talks to her beau under her blanket. (Candace S Greene, "From Bison Robes to Ledgers: Changing Contexts in Plains Drawings," European Review of Native American Studies 18.1 :30.)
Flett was inspired to draw this woman by his memory of watching women digging for bitter roots near Coffee Pot Lake in Davenport, which used to be part of the Spokane Reservation, and where the residents still allow root digging. He remembers them shading their eyes from the sun. The embossing is a dream image of a root digging woman in her finest regalia.
In the 1960s, Flett tells us, when many elders were still alive, they identified all the plants that were used for eating and making medicines. They are now in a tribal collection.
The "Eye of the Sun" also refers to Spukanee, or "Children of the Sun," which is what the Spokane people called themselves when the white men found them. It also relates to a story about the first red man's brother, of whom a witch was so enamored that she leaped onto his face and stuck there. "When she fell off, she tore out one of his eyes. He then volunteered to ascend into the sky to light up the world."*
*Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Spokane People: Children of the Sun, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981, 6-7.
Flett has always loved horses and rodeos. When he was a young man, he was a bull rider. And one of his favorite subjects is of Jackson Sundown, the Nez Perce bronc rider who, in 1916, became the first native horseman to become a World Champion.
In this mixed media piece, richly layered with common objects of the material culture in the 1940s, Flett adds breadth and depth to the subject. He pictures a Spokane woman bronc rider performing a heroic feat and bringing honor to the tribe in a way that is comparable to those of John Stevens. Stevens stands in the circle of the sun with his family in 1940, shortly before World War II, which was brought home to American families in the ration books they were issued. The bronc rider, the photo, and the ration book are layered over a ledger page, an icon of what Janet Berlo and Joyce Szabo explain as a transcultural art form. The image of the Spokane woman rider and her horse in their finest attire serves an identity glyph and established the irony of the title. "Cowgirls and Indians" mocks the implicitly sexist as well as racist form of childhood play common to the 1940s.
While the subject of "Spear in the Ground" is Flett’s maternal grandfather, his great-grandmother plays a major role, and the first part of the story is told from her point of view. Moreover, the multi-layered pictographic story is about the nexus of Flett's family relations that stems from her desperate act of love.
Having just lost her warrior husband, the new mother had to leave her baby son in a cradleboard leaning against a spear in the root-digging plains. Knowing that she could not take care of him, his mother had placed him on a regularly traveled route. She left when she heard someone coming, and the couple riding along the trail knew they were meant to take him.
The story is drawn in color pencils on a cash book page, which has been burned into the shape of a buffalo robe. Flett both appropriates this material record of Western expansion, using it to record his own individual/tribal history, and shapes the Western accounting page into a form of traditional native clothing. Moreover, he places the transformed cash book page upon a faded Department of the Interior geological survey map of the Spokane Reservation’s Turtle Lake area—the small part of the reservation left after the land allotment.
On the important right-hand side of the cash book page is a colored pencil image of the baby in his cradleboard, leaning against the spear. Underneath the spear is written what will become the baby’s Spokane name, “Spear in the Ground,” followed by his name glyph, a small penciled drawing of the spearhead. The couple who will raise him can be seen to the baby’s left, riding toward him along a well-traveled trail. Above the baby and to the right (providing another layer and point of view) is a small image of the hiding mother, looking down at the baby and at the same time picturing (in a thought picture to the left) the fight where her husband was killed by a cavalry soldier. A spiral of sacred smoke connects the baby to his father and the soldier who shot him.
Above the cash book page, layered over the map, is a bright yellow sun (the name “Spokane” means “Children of the Sun”). And, forming another layer in front of the sun, is another photographic transfer of John Stevens. Then, painted in bright colors on the foremost layer, the legendary tribal leader Strong Eagle gallops across the Turtle Lake area and over the cash book, the legs of his painted war horse spanning the map.
Finally, serving as a mat and frame for the multi-dimensional montage and pictographic story, is a blank ledger page. And typed on a panel in its large right-hand margin is the grandfather’s story, now retold by George Flett, which concludes: “It is not written but etched in my heart, and this is how I picture that moment. This painting depicts how it might have been. This is how I honor my maternal grandfather, ‘Spear in the Ground.’” The story is signed “George Flett—Spokan, Spokane Indian Reservation, Wellpinit, Washington.” And beneath his signature is the glyph of his “‘sumish,’ bull elk or buffalo.” Flett’s final “This” in “This is how I honor my maternal grandfather” may refer to a lightly penciled drawing below his narrative—of the baby in his cradle board, leaning on the spear. But it also refers to the layered, or multi-dimensional story. What we experience, then, is George Flett telling the story etched in his heart to honor his grandfather, which includes the tellings, retellings, and associated stories across three generations.