November 23, 2016
In the Northwestern corner of Montana, sandwiched between Canada and Glacier National Park sits the Blackfeet Reservation, home to one of the largest tribes in the country and to ledger artist John Pepion. Pepion’s work is rooted in an ancient practice of visual storytelling and speaks to the soul of his experience and the people of the Blackfeet tribe. K23 Media was honored with the opportunity to interview Pepion about his work and discuss the state of Native Indian life and art in today’s America.
What exactly is ledger art?
Ledger art is an old art form among Plains Indian tribes. Historians believe it evolved originally from rock art, which turned to hide art and then into ledger art. The art is done on old accountant ledger books, bank books, antique checks, antique maps, antique war ration books, and antique western union telegraphs. Nowadays it’s being pushed further and it’s become pretty (culturally) popular.
How did ledger art begin?
In the 1800s the US government starting incarcerating plains tribes for the so-called tribal wars. While the warriors were in prison, the guards would give them blank or used ledger paper and crayons or pens with ink and the warriors would draw scenes from their past lives. They would draw themselves hunting buffalo, fighting in battle, dancing, and sometimes they would draw spiritual scenes.
Why do you choose ledger art as a medium?
I’ve been doing it all my life. I come from a family of artists from the Blackfeet reservation here in Montana. One major influence was my grandfather, who passed away a few years ago. He was also a painter, though he had more of a western style, like C.M. Russell. I had a great uncle named Victor Pepion who created art like mine and was known for having a Santa Fe studio style in the 50’s and 60’s. So, I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition.
Nowadays I’m not just limited to ledger paper; I paint tepees and buffalo skulls. So I personally like to call what I’m doing Plains Indian Graphic Arts.
How does place influence your art?
It’s a major influence because everything that happens in our community influences my art, like contemporary issues such as alcoholism or oil—things like that. Our language and culture are still alive; I myself participate in ceremonies. I’m inspired by my personal experience and parts of Blackfeet culture like our creation stories and history.
My work is specifically Blackfeet. We’re known as Piikani, so all of the colors and symbols I work with represent my culture. And so my community plays a major role in my art both in its message and style.
You can absolutely feel that deeper connection to your culture through your work. I really love your piece “This Is What It Feels Like To Be An American Indian”. What does that piece mean to you and what was your process for creating it?
It was done on an antique prison ledger from the Deer Lodge Montana Prison in the 1800s. And it represents all kinds of things.
It represents being imprisoned by American policies. Right now Native Americans are still going through policy changes—and with Trump, we’ll probably go through another major policy change. We have been subjected to all kinds of policy changes since the 1800s and I feel like we really don’t have rights. For example, look at what’s going on in Standing Rock, they’re fighting for their rights to water, and an oil company won’t stop pushing the matter. The army corps said no, Obama put a temporary stop on construction, but they are still drilling, no matter what.
And, of course, there’s the militarized police.*
This piece represents broken promises and treaties and the mass incarceration of minorities. A lot of us are in prison for small crimes like marijuana, we’re getting like 10-15 years for stuff like that.
Ultimately, this piece represents the idea that to this day we are still struggling for freedom. We’re truly trying to be free, but we’re not because of these obstacles.
What is it like to be an American Indian artist today?
It’s been a roller coaster. It’s been crazy. Sometimes (as an artist) you feel like you have no choice but to make a statement about what’s going on in our current lives and affecting all indigenous people here. I’m not really an activist, but I can make a statement through my art.
Also besides that, to me, what I’m doing with my story and my personal experience and my designs is preserving our culture through art.
Do you have any shows coming up?
I have one now in Great Falls Montana at the Paris Gibson Museum of Art. It’s my work with 4 other artists, together we are a collective. We have another show coming up in Bozeman at the Old Main Gallery, which opens on January 5th.
A special thanks to Pepion for taking the time to chat with us about his work. You can learn more about Pepion’s work here.
*K23 Media Stands with Standing Rock and all Native American tribes in their fight for freedom, justice, and equality. Please donate here to help.