Volume 10Issue 4December 1998Montana State University-Bozeman
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Native American Art, Photographic Collections to Go Online

A Gros Ventre Ledger drawing from a collection of Native American art at MSU-Billings
by Annette Trinity-Stevens

In the 1880s to about 1900, many Native Americans were held in army posts while being moved on to reservations.

For something to do,tribal members used military ledgers and crayons to draw battle scenes.

Ledger drawing now refers to a particular style of Native American art.

"It has a flat kind of look," says Walter Fleming, a professor of Native American Studies at MSU. "That's the traditional representation of warriors and horses you'd find on tepee covers, tepee liners and clothing. They extended [those images] onto ledgers with crayons instead of with paint."

Sometime next year, Ledger drawings and other Native American art and photographs from five collections in Montana will be available to anyone with Internet access.

The project will digitize images from the MSU-Bozeman libraries, the Museum of the Rockies, MSU-Northern, MSU-Billings and Little Big Horn College on the Crow Indian Reservation.

"I had this idea for some time, but it was a matter of funding and staff time," said project organizer and MSU librarian Elaine Peterson. "Plus, the library has no photo curator."

She solved the funding problem by applying for a "national leadership" grant from the new Institute of Museum and Library Services. Its a cooperative project with the Museum of the Rockies, which brought museum photo curator Steve Jackson on board.Hell assess the date and quality of images, look at different formats and oversee the scanning. Project organizers say they see two primary uses for a digital collection. One is scholarly. A researcher in Italy interested in artwork of the Northern Cheyenne wont have to travel to Montana to see it, said Peterson.

The other use is tribal,said Fleming, who's also a part of the project. Members can use the images to help restore lost cultural elements. In addition, the digital medium would be a way of protecting the works from wear and tear.

"A lot of images are in a rare book room are fragile, so its difficult to transport them," said Peterson.

Between 1,500 and 2,000images, mostly photographs, will be included to start, said Jackson. All montana tribes will be represented in the database that will include text and an index. Users will be able to search for pictures of elk teeth dresses, for example.

Photographs of sacred religious articles or of ceremonies where sacred objects are used wont be included, said Fleming. An advisory committee with tribal representatives will develop cultural guidelines to decide what goes into the collection, he said.

The grant includes training for tribal college librarians who visit the Bozeman campus every summer for professional development with librarian Kathy Kaya. Tribal colleges usually have a museum or archives in addition to a library, and the librarians may want to contribute images to the MSU database or build their own, said Peterson.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the
MSU Research Editor.

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