BLACK HAWK: “Sans Arc Lakota” Ledger Book, 1880–1881

Black Hawk was hard-pressed to feed his family of four during the harsh winter of 1880–1881. His tribe, the Sans Arc, was one of seven divisions of the Lakota, a nomadic group of Plains Indians who followed the great herds of buffalo that fed, clothed, and housed them. The herds had been hunted to near extinction, mostly by the settlers who came in increasing numbers, and the Plains tribes were being moved to reservations.

Black Hawk, a spiritual leader, had a vision dream, which William Edward Caton, the Indian trader at the Cheyenne Agency in Dakota, asked him to record, offering fifty cents in trade for every drawing he would make. Caton provided sheets of lined writing paper, colored pencils, and a pen. Black Hawk produced seventy-six drawings over the course of the winter and received thirty-eight dollars in exchange, a sizable amount for the time.
In 1994, the book (by then in a private collection) sold at auction for nearly four hundred thousand dollars.

Black Hawk’s drawings followed a long tradition of Plains Indian art. Lakota men painted images on their teepees and buffalo hide robes to display their accomplishments and brave deeds. Winter counts (communal histories of tribes or families) were also painted on buffalo hide. Each year, which began with the first snowfall, an image of an event that affected the whole group was added, serving as a memory aid for oral renditions of the tribe’s history. As cloth, paper, and art tools were acquired through trade or in raids, the Lakota began to make images with these materials as well. Ledger books were valued because they were portable and provided many surfaces for drawing and painting, either on blank pages or superimposed on used ones. Black Hawk’s work, though one of the finest examples, is not technically a ledger book, for he drew on separate sheets of paper that were bound in leather by Caton.

“Sans Arc Lakota” Ledger Book, c. 1880–1881 by Black Hawk

Black Hawk drew only two images of his dream before he began to record the natural world and Lakota customs and ceremonies. He even recorded processions of Crow warriors, traditional enemies of the Lakota. In the bottom image, the Crow are recognizable by their hairstyle: a short tuft swept up at the forehead, and long plaits augmented with extensions and daubed with clay in the back. The Crow were known for their beauty, and Black Hawk described their appearance in detail. Several sport metal bands on their upper arms, and all wear multiple-strand necklaces of white-shell beads (wampum), as well as precious eagle feathers (twelve feathers were equal in value to a horse). Some feathers decorate the hair or are carried as fans—two with additional tiers of feathers—while others adorn war lances and forked coup sticks. (Touching an enemy with a coup stick in battle showed a man’s bravery.) Faces are painted red and some bodies are painted red or yellow. The C-shaped horse prints on the middle two figures indicate skill in battle; another man’s legs are marked with diagonal lines that mean “strikes the enemy.” Three men carry beaded and fringed bags to hold the mirrors they acquired through trade.

In the other drawing at the top, depicts a Lakota social dance performed by men and women. Both sexes wear their hair parted in the middle, the men with feather and quill ornaments, and the women with the part painted yellow or red. There are beaded belts, strips of brass buttons worn around the waist or across the body, shell jewelry, and a beaded bag to hold craft tools (first woman at the left). The most costly dress, worn by the fourth figure from the right, is decorated with rows of the upper canine (eye) teeth of elk, the only two elk’s teeth that are ivory.

We know little about Black Hawk’s life after he produced these ledger drawings. He does not appear in the records of the Cheyenne River Agency after 1889. Scholars believe that Black Hawk was killed at Wounded Knee in the newly formed state of South Dakota in December of the following year.

December 12, 2013 PowerPoint Black Hawk Sans Arc Lakota Ledger Book

Worksheet Black Hawks Ledger Book January 4

We will be reading Across Five Aprils over the Christmas break.

Have a good week.  -Mrs. S


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