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A Cayuse-Nez Percé Sketchbook

The 'Signal' Sketchbook

The volume found in Cap' Sumkin's house is a school composition book (measuring 8 1/4" x 6 3/4") with a red cover bearing the brand name, "Signal Exercise Book" and containing some 30 lined pages with drawings in plain and colored pencil. The artist, in all likelihood, was a schoolboy or one not long removed from that condition; and the book, in its content, graphically combines themes and interests known to have been entertained by Indian boys in the early days of the twentieth century. For the first page (top left)--most pages are numbered consecutively on the right-hand side--is a copy of a poster or advertisement for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, with horses and cowboys in lively poses. Several reservation schoolboys, in fact, left to tour with some of Cody's rivals, and when the Pendleton Roundup was started in 1911, local Indians took part, as stagecoach drivers and in other roles not restricted to Indians. Coupled with this was an interest in livestock: on pages numbered 3 through 6 (there is no page 2), two bulls, a Hereford and a black, face off, charge together, then separately drop dung.

A second theme is athletics. On the pages facing the bulls are copies of photographs or drawings of football and baseball players, some (as a title tells us) from the U.S. Naval Academy, and others from a variety of other institutions. There is a group picture of the football team from La Grande, a town some miles south of the reservation, and another of the team from Lewis Institute, then a junior college in Chicago. On the back cover, written in another hand--our artist reverses the numeral 6--are a series of football signals, a topic perhaps suggested by the brand name of the composition book. Many schoolboys of the time were avid sports fans; and at least one Cayuse among them had had ambitions to attend a military academy.

The third interest, which will occupy the remainder of this paper, is the warrior's life of former times. For many a schoolboy, resentful under the regimen of an alien teacher, that life was the stuff of wistful daydreams.

That the book is indeed local is confirmed by the fact that the back cover, in the hand of that second writer, carries the address, Bingham Sprs (Springs), Umatilla, Ore., a stage station and post office on the upper Umatilla River, just east of the reservation. The best dating currently available is provided by one of the football players, who bears on his sweater the label, "Yale 1904 BB." A cross-check might be provided by the picture of the football team from Lewis Institute, for it carries the names of the players as well. Thus far, we have not fared well here. Lewis Institute is no longer in existence, and inquiries to its successor have drawn a blank. The Chicago Tribune, scrutinized for relevant years, attests the football activity of the Institute but does not name its players.

The remaining pages of the exercise book are given over to scenes of Indian warfare, executed in a style derived from that of the Plains. This raises a question difficult to resolve: since it is manifest that the drawings of cowboys and athletes are copied from photographs or drawings, are the Indian scenes also taken from unknown originals? And are those originals robes, war shirts, tipi covers or tipi liners; or were they other sketchbooks? It is clear, as will be shown later, that the artist's subject is local, so that if he copied from other drawings, they too must have been local. It is, however, possible that he was sufficiently versed to create afresh scenes in a style learned from a distant source.

For the Signal drawing book marks a late stage of Plains depictive art. John C. Ewers, the foremost authority on Plains painting (1939 and in Petersen, 1968), has seen an early, essentially pictographic style of robe painting giving way in the middle of the nineteenth century to a more naturalistic style. Although initially he viewed the development as largely autonomous, he came to document the influence in the 1830s of the artists, Catlin and Bodmer, upon two Mandan men, who learned to paint with watercolors upon paper (Ewers, 1957, reprinted 1968); one of whom transferred his watercolor style to robe painting (Ewers, 1968: Plate 21; cf. 1939: Plate 25A). As Petersen (1971) notes, drawings on paper, perhaps as practice sketches later to be executed on hide, coexisted with the later style of robe painting, and indeed underlay it. There is some overlap in technique: Rodee (1965: 224) compares the use of crayons and pencils, among other implements, with the incised pressure technique by which bone paint "brushes" applied color to hides. Ledgers and odd pieces of paper used for such sketches were found in native villages in the course of campaigns. In the 1870s war drawings in this "ledger art" took the form of a "late Siouan" style (Ewers, 1939: 35; see Mallery, 1886: 208-14) and the notable sketchbooks of Kiowa and Cheyenne prisoners in Fort Marion, Florida (Cohoe, 1964; Dunn, 1968; Petersen, 1968, 1971).

The shift in style was greatest among the tribes of the Central Plains; as Ewers observes, among Blackfeet, Sarsi, and Cree to the north the earlier style lasted into the present century. This was true as well of the Nez Percé's (and no doubt, of the Cayuse).


Consider the robe reproduced in P1. 1 [see print edition--not included in this version] from the Field Museum of Natural History (Cat. No. 69143), collected in 1901 from Abraham Brooks, a Christian Nez Percé who had served as scout with General O.O. Howard in the 1877 war against Joseph's people (McWhorter, 1952:243), and who allegedly had taken it from Joseph himself--an unlikely event--at the end of the war.

The robe is an entire elk hide to be worn horizontally, with the neck at the left and with a beaded band dividing it into two fields above and below it. The upper scene is said to depict the troops--doubtless represented by the six darker figures partly concealed by the pendant eagle feathers and weasel tails--surrounded by Indians, of whom four are represented, feather in hair, the rest summarized.

Below, at the right a mounted Indian in war bonnet confronts a soldier whose footprints show him advancing from the left. The Indian holds no visible weapon, unless that is a war club and not a whip in his left hand, and the soldier, who has dropped his gun, is attacking him with a knife. An arrow appears about to bring the soldier down. On the left are two mounted Indians, at least one of whom, by the hoof prints, has come from the right. The rider in advance, who carries both bow and arrows and a lance, is in the act of being speared by the second man, who bears a shield. In the background, it is said (Rabineau, personal communication) rifle and cannon balls fly.

In style, the Brooks robe is close to the essentially pictographic style of the early nineteenth century. Movement is from right to left; with little overall composition, it lacks either background or perspective. Horses and men are conventionalized, the horses static and in profile, the men with torsos posed frontally, in modified rectangular form, with legs in profile, stick arms, and featureless knob head. Colors are applied flatly (cf. Ewers, 1939: 17-22; Petersen, 1971:21). It is a style retained among the Sioux in their Winter Counts, alongside the later style (Mallery, 1886: 89-146).

A far remove from the style of the Brooks robe are the war drawings on paper of Peopeo Tholekt (Swan Alighting), a Nez Percé veteran of the 1877 war. Drawn for L. V. McWhorter about 1927 (Cheetham, 1963), they are now deposited in the Washington State University Library. Both these drawings and a tipi cover painted by the same man (illustrated in McWhorter, 1952) are in a far more naturalistic style, and share a number of features with the Signal sketchbook as well as with the later style of the Central Plains. (For a further example, painted on a blanket, see Slickpoo, 1973: facing page 14).

In particular, the frequent rendition of horses as long of neck and small of head is a feature not derived from Euro-American example or from the observation of nature, but points to a Central Plains source. Both the Nez Percé's and Cayuse often traded Plains articles from the Crow, and at least in recent years they have taken some of their social dances from the Sioux; and these two peoples seem their most likely models for the naturalistic art.

The Signal drawings, in fact mark an intimate blend of that modified style with further influences from Euro-American pictures, photographs, and even comic strips. Figures are characteristically presented in profile, though a three-quarter view is sometimes attempted (e.g. page 8), and a complex depiction (page 19) is not beyond the artist's grasp. A figure seen from the side is naturalistically presented. It may be noted--though it is not a feature remarked of Plains representational art--that as a consequence of social scale, a principal figure sometimes looms over his opponents (e.g. pages 20, 21, and the final page); and riders sometimes seem out of proportion to their steeds. (On the Brooks robe, to be sure, the figure of the soldier is magnified, but this is perhaps a matter of artistic balance.) Occasionally (e.g. page 7) the features of a subject have been so carefully rendered that the head as a whole seems oversize. Much attention has been paid to the individual traits of the principal persons shown. There is little doubt that those who saw these sketches when they were freshly drawn could identify the persons whose exploits they celebrate--persons who now must go nameless.

These drawings have retained the Indian device of recounting the stages of an exploit in successive scenes--a device that many have been given further shape by the example of the serial frames of the comic pages--of symbolizing movement by the semi-lunar hoof prints of horses and the dashes that represent human footprints; and of denoting the slaying of man or animal by blood flowing from both wound and mouth. They have drawn from Euro-American sources, as had the later robe style, in including many individuals in a single scene (e.g. page 8) and in rendering relative distance by having the nearer figure partially obscure one farther away (page 7) and by placing the more distant figure on a higher plane than the nearer (page 8). The Signal drawings go beyond the later robe style in showing more distant figures in reduced size (page 8); in employing foreshortening to render perspective (page 15); in the depiction of background and foreground (page 10); and in the portrayal of scenery alone (facing page 14). Drawn in outline with pencil, then filled in with colored pencil, the pictures often exhibit a fine firm line and the delicate application of color (e.g. page 22).

Next: Cultural Context

Last revision: 8/12/03 by N. Helmer
Created by Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries
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