Five Crows Ledger: Biographic Warrior Art of the Flathead Indians/Art of the Warriors: Rock Art of the American Plains

By Sundstrom, Linea | Plains Anthropologist, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Five Crows Ledger: Biographic Warrior Art of the Flathead Indians/Art of the Warriors: Rock Art of the American Plains


Sundstrom, Linea, Plains Anthropologist


Five Crows Ledger: Biographic Warrior Art of the Flathead Indians. By JAMES D. KEYSER. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2000. x + 105 pp., figures, notes, bibliography. $24.95 (cloth, ISBN: 0-87480-659-3).

Art of the Warriors: Rock Art of the American Plains. By JAMES D. KEYSER. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2004. 128 pp., figures, notes, bibliography. $45.00 (cloth, ISBN: 0-87480-811-1).

Archaeologists are frequently challenged, in both senses of the word, to present their research in formats that serve both the professional community and the public. Two attractive new books from the University of Utah Press rise to this challenge.

Responding to, and largely responsible for, the renewed interest in historic Plains Indian pictography, James D. Keyser offers readers two entrees into this fascinating topic, one working back from historic materials and the other forward from prehistoric rock art. The Five Crows Ledger presents 13 pen and ink drawings made by two Flathead warriors in the mid-nineteenth century and collected by the famous missionary-explorer Pierre-Jean DeSmet. Because DeSmet had collected interpretations from the warrior-artists themselves, Keyser was able to test his own independent readings of the narrative drawings against DeSmet's notes. The highly specific and accurate interpretation of the drawings may surprise those who have not followed developments in this area of research. Keyser's analysis, like other recent studies, leaves little doubt that classic warrior art was intended as a record of specific events, to which esthetic considerations were subordinated. In other words, as Keyser asserts, one must approach this "art" as narrative, not decoration.

The Five Crows Ledger is essentially a series of short, richly illustrated essays on the development of narrative warrior art, the history of early Jesuit contact with tribes at the Plains-Plateau border, a biography of the principal warrior-artist, and a detailed discussion of each picture. Another chapter discusses the overlap between Plains and Plateau cultural traditions, reminding the reader that real people do not cooperate with the arbitrary boundaries anthropologists set for them.

Keyser's treatment of this biographic art form is convincing and easy to follow. This book is accessible to the interested nonprofessional, as well as to professional anthropologists and art historians. Even die-hard material culturalists will find much of interest in the descriptions of precontact and contact era weaponry and regalia.

Art of the Warriors: Rock Art of the American Plains is an overview of recent research on Plains rock art. Keyser masterfully summarizes the major rock art traditions of the region, along with the various technical and theoretical tools brought to bear on them. Like The Five Crows Ledger, its strength is in cogently presenting the links between pictographic rock art and ledger art. Its extensive footnoting and text make this more than a coffee table book. It provides students and non-specialists a solid grounding in current thinking on Plains rock art.

The title, and to some extent the text itself, unfortunately plays into the stereotype of Plains Indian culture as essentially male and warlike.

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