When you look at the ledger art of Alaina Buffalo Spirit, you first notice the colors and the depictions of strong Native American women.
What you don’t see, on first glance, is the pain. But it is there, hiding beneath the surface.
“When I was told on that morning in 2002 that my only son had been shot, it was like a ton of bricks hit me,” Buffalo Spirit said. “Nobody knows how that feels until they lose a child themselves. How do you move forward from something like that? For me, the answer was art. Each time I did a painting, it took away some of the loneliness and the pain.”
Buffalo Spirit will share her story and her artwork during a series of public workshops sponsored by the Jim Gatchell Museum, Johnson County Historical Society and Johnson County Arts and Humanities Council on Jan. 9. Buffalo Spirit will work with Buffalo High School and Cloud Peak Elementary students throughout the day and will host a public workshop in the evening.
Pain has long been an essential component of ledger art – a form of Plains Indian drawing on paper or cloth. Many of the earliest ledger artists were, like Buffalo Spirit, members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. During the Red River War of 1874-75, a group of Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Caddo warriors fought the U.S. Army to protect the last free herd of Buffalo but were captured by the Army and became prisoners of war at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. The war marked the end of free-roaming Native-American populations on the southern Great Plains.
From 1875 to 1878, the 71 men and one woman who were captured lived inside the fort. The prisoners were provided with pencils, ink, crayons, watercolor paint and ledger paper used for accounting. Twenty-six of the prisoners used art as a way to deal with their loneliness and isolation.
“Naturally, they started drawing imagery from their home in the west,” Buffalo Spirit said. “They drew the things they were lonesome for – their horses, their land.”
More than 140 years later, Buffalo Spirit is continuing the tradition as a way to connect with her culture and remember her son. Using ledger paper, maps and sheet music, Buffalo Spirit creates artwork that pays tribute to the original ledger artists while also honoring the contributions of Native American women, including her own mother and grandmother.
“I do it using the same imagery as the artists from the 1800s,” Buffalo Spirit said. “But during the 1800s, there was not a lot of ledger art that honored women. I’m trying to make up for that. I want to portray these strong women in a beautiful light.”
Buffalo Spirit, who lives in Lame Deer, Montana, said she looks forward to sharing her art and her story with the people of Buffalo. She said she is hopeful her story will inspire those struggling with their own pain and loss.
“The message I want to share is that you don’t have to be stuck in grief, hurt and pain,” Buffalo Spirit said. “You can use art to draw yourself out of the pain. It can heal your hurt.”