For the past three years, the Missoula Writing Collaborative has worked together with Salish storyteller Aspen Decker to bring Indigenous storytelling, Plains sign language, and ledger art creations into elementary and middle schools in Dixon, Arlee, Saint Ignatius, Ronan, and Pablo.
The term “ledger” comes from the accounting ledger books that were a common source of paper used by U.S. government agencies and schools on Native American reservations during the 1870s. Ledger paper is characterized by gridded lines similar to graph paper.
Ledger art is a term that describes predominantly Plains Indian art that was done on ledger paper or cloth. It features bold outlines, multiple colors, and no facial features on people or animals.
Ledger art often features abstract designs with cultural significance that represent significant events in a tribe’s history. Through these illustrated stories, Native Americans remember and share important knowledge for themselves and future generations.
Through MWC’s ledger art project, MWC partners with Salish storyteller Aspen Decker. At each school, Decker teaches students Plains sign language through traditional Salish coyote stores in both English and Salish. Then, MWC staff guide students through
the process of writing ledger art poems describing how local animals became the way they are – for example, “How the Raven Drained the Coyote’s Heart” or “How the Iinii Got Happy” (Iinii being the Blackfoot word for buffalo). To illustrate their poems, students either draw freehand or trace outlines of animals on ledger paper. Finally, copies of the ledger art creations are sent to the schools for display.
A selection of ledger art poetry from the 2023 Ledger Art poetry project can be found in the gallery below. This project is generously funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.