becca gercken on the black horse ledger


Held at Newberry Library, Chicago


Becca Gercken, ‘Manifest Meanings: The Selling (Not Telling) of American Indian History and the Case of “The Black Horse Ledger”‘, The American Indian Quarterly 34, 4 (2010)

In lieu of an abstract, here is a preview of the article.

What is the value or perceived necessity—for an Indian or for a white man—of changing Northern Cheyenne history? How are a reader’s conclusions affected by her perception of the race of the person altering that history? Why is it acceptable to sell but not tell American Indian history? An examination of the visual and discursive rhetoric of “The Black Horse Ledger,” a Northern Cheyenne ledger book history recorded in the late nineteenth century and later defaced, gives us the opportunity to engage these questions. Native American histories have long been contested ground in both the dominant culture and academia, but “The Black Horse Ledger” provides a rare opportunity to see that battle overtly waged on its pages as unknown parties disfigured the original images and made editorial remarks that serve to reinforce the marred history rather than the original record. The coexisting yet competing accounts contained within the ledger embody the unreconciled Indian and Anglo literacies and histories of the American West. The juxtaposition of these opposing literacies and histories forces readers to negotiate the competing economies of meaning that clash in both form and subject.

“The Black Horse Ledger” not only foregrounds conflicts within academia’s treatment of Native American history but also highlights key points of tension and debate in the study of ledger art. In a discussion of the so-called descriptive texts that have been added to some of the Fort Marion ledgers, Edwin L. Wade and Jacki Thompson Rand argue that multiple handwriting styles are present, many of which do not match known prisoner writing, and warn: “We must be vigilant in questioning whether these captions are relevant to the intent of the artist.”

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