Denise Low is available for readings, workshops, presentations, and Skypes. She communicates poetic power of language in ways that inform and shape the lives of her audiences and students. Contact her at kansaspoetry [at]  Prices may be negotiable.

Covid news: I am fully vaccinated and healthy! Still available by Zoom, Facetime, and/or telephone for consultations and events as well as in-person events, depending on the situation, in the Bay Area and northeast Kansas.

  • July 12-17 Conference | Transmotion (
  • Sept. 18     Ks. Book Festival, Washburn University, in conversation with Rex Buchanan and reading from Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Fort Robinson Breakout Survivors, time TBA Kansas Book Festival 
  • Sept. 26, N. Berkeley CA, 3 pm, Northbrae Community Church, 16 Rivers Press reading with Kim Shuck
  • AWP 2022, March 23-26, Philadelphia, panel presentation pending

Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Fort Robinson Survivors: Spirituality and Sexuality

Denise Low, Baker University

About 2008, Ramon Powers and I began researching a set of four Northern Cheyenne ledger art notebooks that were created in Dodge City by Fort Robinson Breakout survivors, in 1879. The seven men involved—perhaps only three of them worked on the drawings: Wild Hog, Strong Left Hand, and Porcupine—awaited trial in civic court for conflicts the previous fall as the men and their band of Northern Cheyennes attempted to escape Darlington Agency, essentially a prisoner of war camp, in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Ramon and I published an article in Kansas History, free online, and last winter we published a book-length study of selected images and biographies of the men who survived this ordeal, Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Fort Robinson Breakout Survivors, available through the University of Nebraska Press (discount code 6AF20). This research includes contemporaneous 19th century sources as well as current Northern Cheyenne, Southern Cheyenne, and European descended scholars.

A bit more context The images were created at the cusp of reservation times. The seven Northern Cheyenne men arrived in Dodge City expecting execution. Under the supervision of Sheriff Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson, they recovered their health, bathed in the Arkansas River regularly, ate well, played cards with other prisoners, smoked tobacco and prayed, and talked to journalists. They gained sympathies especially of the Eastern newspaper audience if not the Dodge City citizens. They also developed a relationship with a pro bono attorney, and eventually they were acquitted. Most returned to Montana, to the new Northern Cheyenne reservation when it was created in 1884.

Records of the four small books of drawings indicate they may have been used as gifts to show appreciation for the jailer’s services and his wife’s good cooking. One went to a court official. Two may have gone to a gambler in jail with them, perhaps to pay off gambling losses. They were not stolen, nor were they grave goods.

A more thorough discussion of the ledger art genre is available at Plains Indian Ledger Art, where all of the ledgers are posted, along with forty complete ledger art books. This is a bounty of primary information about Indigenous point-of-view experiences of the 19th century.

I present this discussion about courtship, sexuality, eroticism, and gender identities as my imperfect understanding of the Northern Cheyenne ledger art notebooks.

First, the female and male aspects of the world were not limited to human embodiment. Depictions of Cheyenne women and men in all ledger texts depend upon the spiritual essence of gender more than biology or social performance. Their cosmos has two aspects, masculine and feminine, sited in sky and earth, respectively. Interactions between physical, earthly matter, corresponding to the feminine principle, and heavenly spirit, corresponding to the masculine principle, underlie ledger text and other graphic compositions. The Above-world spiritual essence permeates the sky realm of stars, planets, sun, and moon; and the Below-world realm lies in the Earth, with the human world being an admixture of both, in a place between sky and earth: “The spatial zones between zenith and nadir are tiered and all witness, in various ways, the interaction between male energy and female substance” (Nagy 39-40). Father Peter Powell’s interviews with Northern Cheyenne elders indicates that the Sky-world entities include Sun, “among the greatest of the Above Powers” (Powell 437); Imre Nagy’s research also includes Moon; Rain; Thunder; and Tornado (Nagy 40). Three gradients of sky, from nearest to furthest, have their associated birds, with Eagles residing in the highest sky realm, near the Sun (Nagy 40). The Below-world divides into deep Earth, fertile soil, water, and Turtle. According to older Cheyenne people, the Earth resembles a Turtle’s back or a Beaver’s lodge (Powell 434). The spirit of Badger is a wise informant from the Below-world, capable of telling warriors the future (Powell 439; Cowdrey Plate 162). Men departing for battle consulted Badger for divination, because it was “a creature of immense physical and spiritual power, which dwelt in the Deep Earth” (Cowdrey 53). Buffalo also are associated with the Earth, as they sustain physical human life and come from within the Sacred Mountain (Bear Butte near Sturgis, South Dakota).

This binary concept of Cheyenne thought inflects throughout ledger art syntax, where interaction occurs between spirit and matter; conqueror and conquered; male and female; left and right. According to Candace Greene:

Thus, in Cheyenne pictures the position on the right has the same connotation in pictorial space that it has in the ideological realm, where the right side is possessed of greater energy or spiritual force, and thus dominates the left. In pictures of warfare or hunting, this domination is expressed physically. In scenes of male/female interaction, the relationship is metaphysical. Males are possessed of spiritual energy. Females are not, but can receive such energy from males.    (Greene 29)

This is Greene’s interpretation that the spiritual, male side is dominate over the Earth; I prefer to understand the binary cosmos as consisting of co-equal categories, and interactions between the two create reality of this cosmos.

Even with production of material goods, Cheyenne men and women link their activities to gender-related cosmological concepts. Men, as spirit-beings of the World-above, balance themselves by drawing figures of the material world on objects. Therefore, only men drew the realistic ledger scenes. They also drew tent illustrations, shield drawings, and warrior shirt drawings. Women procreate the World-below, so for balance they draw, quill, or bead geometric figures representing spiritual energy of the World-Above. Thus each gender’s actions complete a spiritual, not biological, balance. Gender identity resides in spirituality, not social performativity. This understanding of cosmic forces permeates even apparently simple acts, such as a woman defleshing a hide:

Even in preparing raw-hide, a woman begins by using a flesher (eh?xohn’hohyoh), whose shape and use are emblematic of the striking power of lightning, the masculine essence of spirit [author’s emphasis. With it the flesh, the essence of matter [author’s emphasis], is removed from the envelope of hide, itself emblematic of the spiritual essence that contains all matter . . . .  At the moment of impact on the hide, the flesher figuratively “grounds” itself, as lighting is said to “ground” when it strikes the earth. (Coleman 3)

Even with this routine chore, the woman reenacts the major principles of her theological reality. The woman, an Earth-being, holds a scraper or representation of spirit, and removes Earth-bound flesh from the hide or “spiritual essence that contains matter.”

In the four Dodge City ledgers, each drawing is a dynamic of sky-related colors: masculine blues, grays, and blacks; and women’s earth-related colors of red and pink. The artists had few colors available, including watered down India ink, so any of the related hues of blue and red are synonymous. Red and blue alternate in numerous combinations in the drawings. Sometimes an almost identical group of figures will have subtle variations in how blue and red are combined.

Dress is another way these artists indicate gender. The long breechcloth that hangs below the blanket is an indicator of a man. A woman may be wrapped in a blanket and seem to be a man, but her dress “tabs” or seam ornamentation hangs partway down her legs, shorter than the breechcloth and to the sides. The tipi is conical and sometimes ornamented to match a woman’s dress in these ledgers, what I have not seen elsewhere.

Young women of marriageable age often wore red dresses ornamented with rare elk teeth, and several drawings in this series show this feminine bright red garment. Close sisters or sister-cousins often attended courtship trysts together, and this is illustrated in these ledgers. The young men also court as partners or small groups, often riding the same horse.

Another indicator of courtship is a water bucket glyph, used in this series of drawings. It conveys the meaning that the young woman was obtaining water as a daily chore, one of the few times she was without a chaperone, and so she could meet a suitor. Courtship drawings may be these encounters or more formal courtship scenes in camp with a chaperone present. .

The courtship blanket was symbolic and literal. It gave the couple some privacy as they embraced and talked in front of a chaperone—an aunt or grandmother. Scenes often show a blue or red wool Stroud blanket sewn at the seam and decorated by an elaborate medicine wheel design or rosette.. The blanket could allow for a range of intimate encounters, and the artists of this series of drawings created some unusual examples. [slides]

These are ways that these Northern Cheyenne men embedded gender and sexuality in their drawings of people: color, composition, dress, tipis, blankets, and courting couples.

The Dodge City prisoner-artists were absent from their wives and children, and they repetitively drew their wives especially, including dance scenes. They also drew numerous mother and baby animal scenes, which is an unusual aspect of these ledger drawings. The season of the Dodge City incarceration coincided with early spring when many animals have offspring. It also might emphasize their yearning for the spiritual balance of marriage. This drawing is almost identical to the sequence of six other female elk with calves in this ledger (plates 26-31). Elk were replacing buffalo on the plains as a major game source at the time of the 1879 incarceration of the Northern Cheyenne men who drew this and related ledgers. The season for elk calving coincided with their months of incarceration, February through June. Respect for female reproductive powers are central to Cheyenne values. Peter J. Powell quotes Fire Wolf:  “The law is this: the woman is above everything because Maheo has given the woman power to spread people to cover the face of the earth.” [slides]

Elk also had roles in the social and spiritual lives of Cheyenne people. One of the military societies founded by the spiritual leader Sweet Medicine was Elk (Elk Scrapers or Hoof Rattle). Bull elk could bestow powers on men for love pursuits. Elk can represent Maiyun, (Above Powers) along with buffalo, bear, wolf, and swifthawk; a spiritual being of the sky realm may take form as an elk. Twelve nearly identical images of a male elk appear in this ledger (plates 19-23; 30, 32, 37-41).

War is downplayed in this set of drawings by men held in a jail awaiting trial in a white-controlled court. There are a few war scenes, and even they have references to women’s presence. The feminine principle appears on virtually every page of the warriors in regalia, represented by images that evoke the Cheyenne cosmological balance. Examples are footprints on the Earth; Grasshoppers, Buffalo, and Turtle images on regalia; and the bowl of sacred pipes (Black Elk 6). In addition, women make men’s war clothing, according to Wooden Leg: “The women made all of the war shirts, leggings, moccasins and such clothing for the men,” and the geometric, spirit-coded cosmological representations were the women’s art form, also powerful as protective charms of the Above-world (86). In addition to this passive presence, women can also be actively present in warfare, taking on roles of fighters and hunters. Cheyenne men who drew ledgers implied feminine involvement in their historical records, even if figures of women were not present overtly.

The genders of the Dodge City artists appear to be male, but one of the prisoners may have been a two-spirit person. The newspaper reporter noted this discreetly about the man known as Blacksmith: “Blacksmith has the face of a woman and the body of a Hercules” (Lawrence Standard, 8 July 1879). During the escape north through Kansas to Nebraska, and during the breakout, he traveled with the women. According to the same newspaper interview, his daughter married the famous Colorado personality Tom Boggs, a brother-in-law to Kit Carson, so he was a father. Further conjecture about his status is uncertain. Michael Cowdrey has an extensive discussion of two-spirit roles in his discussion of this image on the Plains Indian Ledger Art site. PILA Plate 148 Plains Indian Ledger Art | Arrow’s Elk Society Ledger: Plate #48, PLATE 148 (

Ceremonial dances are shown in the ledger art notebooks, including one image of six identical Cheyenne men standing in a row with sashes swinging, apparently dancing. Dr. Odenbaugh, a visitor of the Northern Cheyenne men in Dodge City, described them dancing in a circle and singing in connection with creation of a healing drawing. This may be a two-dimensional allusion to such a dance.

Finally, one of the discoveries of Ramon’s and my research was the connection of spiritual practice with the process of drawing ledger art images. A doctor from Ohio visited the group in the Dodge City jail, and they danced and sang for a while. Then Wild Hog drew an image on a business card back and gifted it to the doctor with the understanding that it was a protection. This image shows a woman with blanket tightly wrapped around her. Gordon Yellowman, the Southern Cheyenne artist, saw this image and noted that the lack of facial features would denote “a spirit being” (private correspondence, January 14, 2020). He further explains that the woman’s arms would be tucked inside the blanket while performing a healing ritual, while sacred songs were sung.

This emphasizes the spirituality of these ledger art notebooks, and that essence is present in every image of these dynamic cultural expressions. Some tentative inferences from these well-documented ledger art notebooks include:

  • Interaction between Above-World and Below-World is a constant motion.
  • People’s spiritual genders may inflect in the Earth’s province in a variety of ways: courtship and sexuality, ceremonies, hunting, warfare, inter-gender roles.
  • Colors, attire, shapes of weapons, tools, dwellings, and other human-made objects reflect this dynamism.
  • Cultural referents may be coded signage of the balance of Above-World and Below-World interaction.

And finally, my appreciation to the Southern Cheyenne poet Lance Henson, who first introduced me to ledger art’s spiritual content through his poetry.

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