Why is an auction house selling works by imprisoned Indigenous artists?

Tahnee Ahtone (Kiowa, Mvskoke) looking at one of the drawing books up for auction at Bonhams (all photos Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

“I almost cried when I saw the drawing of Rainey Mountain,” said Tahnee Ahtone, director of the Kiowa Tribal Museum. “This is where our life changed.” Ahtone, who is of Kiowa and Mvskoke descent, had come to Bonhams Auction House in Los Angeles to view a set of four drawing books featured in an upcoming Native American art and artifacts auction. “From the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande: The Collection of Roy H. Robinsonfeatures hundreds of items — textiles, tomahawks, cribs, beaded bags and pottery — collected from communities across North America. But the so-called “ledger books,” created by Cheyenne and Kiowa artists once imprisoned by the United States, are perhaps the most unique, and their inclusion in the sale the most controversial.

On Monday, Kiowa Tribe Chairman Lawrence SpottedBird sent Bonhams a letter asking that the books be removed from the auction, which is due to take place on Wednesday October 26 and Thursday October 27. “The tribe is particularly concerned about the lack of information about the provenance of the records created by the United States government’s Kiowa prisoners and the chain of custody of the objects, including how the books were originally transferred from the prisoners to another person,” the letter reads. “The Kiowa objects that Bonhams has scheduled for auction represent objects of significant cultural heritage related to the history and culture of the tribe – items that we believe may have been wrongly acquired.”

Illustrated Fort Marion Ledger by Etahdleuh Doanmoe (Kiowa, 1856-1888) (image courtesy of Bonhams)

The books, each estimated to sell for between $80,000 and $120,000, are examples of “the art of the ledger”, practiced primarily among Plains Indians from the mid-19th century. Named after the type of paper on which these artists drew, ledger art chronicled battles, ceremonies, and rapidly changing daily life. The artists of the four books featured in the auction – Bear’s Heart (Nock-ko-ist, Cheyenne), Ohet-Toint (High Front, Kiowa) and Etahdleuh Doanmoe (Kiowa) – were part of a group of more than 70 Kiowa, Cheyenne, Caddo, Comanche, and Arapaho Warriors imprisoned at Fort Marion, Florida between 1875 and 1878 after the Red River War, a U.S. Army campaign to remove groups of Plains Indians from their lands and move them to Indian Territory.

The designs depict scenes of war, the long journey from their home country to Florida as prisoners, and prison life; the “Rainey Mountain drawing” invoked by Ahtone depicts the surrender of the Kiowa, including one of his ancestors, near Rainey Mountain Creek on February 23, 1875.

“From the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande: The Collection of Roy H. Robinson” previewed at Bonhams

According to the Bonhams auction catalog, the books were gifted to Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple by Richard Henry Pratt, a U.S. Army officer who oversaw the Fort Marion prison and founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. in 1879, the first off-reserve boarding school for Native Americans. “Kill the Indian, save the man” was the phrase he sadly uttered regarding his efforts to educate and “civilize” Native Americans, and he used the records created at the prison – which he often bought from inmates – as proof that his assimilation strategy was successful. Robinson, the collector, acquired the books from the estate of Bishop Whipple’s widow in 1933.

Ledger of Fort Marion illustrated by Bear’s Heart (Nock-ko-ist, Cheyenne, 1851–1882) and Ohet-Toint (High Front, Kiowa, c. 1848-1934, 35) (image courtesy of Bonhams)

When contacted by Hyperallergic, a Bonhams spokesperson said the auction house was unable to comment. The sale appears to be going ahead – a move some members of the Aboriginal community say is unethical.

“The problem with Bonhams is that they take the shippers word for provenance and never contact the tribes to determine if there is a claim,” Shannon O’Loughlin (Choctaw), CEO of the American Indian Affairs Association, says Hyperallergic. “This leaves the tribes with a huge burden to prove that these are sensitive items that were stolen.”

“Even items that have been removed by indigenous people from their own nation for sale, if it’s an item of cultural heritage, it’s the nation’s culture,” O’Loughlin continued.Only the nation can authorize this removal… Auction houses have a moral and ethical obligation to act in good faith with respect to legal title.

Ledger of Fort Marion illustrated by Bear’s Heart (Nock-ko-ist, Cheyenne, 1851-1882) (image courtesy of Bonhams)

Ross Frank, a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), digitizes the art of the ledger through his Plains Indian Ledger Art project, making it accessible online.

“What we always lose when we talk about Fort Marion is that it is about incarcerated people. The method of incarceration was extralegal,” Frank said. “These people did not go through a court, they were accused of war crimes, but they were not judged. They were summarily appointed to serve as hostages for the losing people of the Red River War.

Illustrated Fort Marion Ledger by Ohet-Toint (High Front, Kiowa, c. 1848-1934.35) (image courtesy Bonhams)

Frank has been granted permission by Bonhams to provide high-level reviews of these four books on his site, but he describes it as “the last resort”. “You want to make sure that no matter what happens, there’s a recording of them in their entirety,” Frank added. He noted that he was not aware of any historical art books belonging to an Aboriginal institution.

“From the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande: The Collection of Roy H. Robinson” previewed at Bonhams

The main federal law that permits the repatriation of certain Native American objects, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), only applies to federal agencies or museums that receive federal funds, so Bonhams auction items are not within its jurisdiction. The STOP (Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony) Act, which passed the House last December, would expand the scope of protected objects, especially overseas. Federal laws notwithstanding, Frank notes that “there is a moral and historical reason for people to think about these transactions in a more holistic way than market capitalism generally allows.”

Tahnee Ahtone (Kiowa, Mvskoke) looking at drawing books at auction at Bonhams

“My first suggestion would be that the vendor offer it to us, sending it home to its rightful place,” Gordon Yellowman, director of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes cultural and linguistic program, told Hyperallergic. “In this way, it helps with education. It all started with education,” he adds, noting the connection to early Indian boarding schools.

“In this way, our students can benefit from these works of art. These drawings have cultural value. Auction houses look at monetary value. Cultural value always trumps money.