Donald Montileaux: History of Ledger Art

The other day we chatted with artist Donald Montileaux and got an inside look at his studio - we looked at some amazing work, had the chance to see some of his drawings in progress, and also learned some of the meaning behind his artwork, what inspires him, and his greatest mentors.

In this first episode, Donald tells us about one of his greatest mentors, how he became a ledger artist, and also gives us a quick lesson about the history of this art form.


[Rose Kern] How did you get involved with Ledger Art…what drew you to that?

[Donald Montileaux] My ego (Don says smiling). My mentor was Herman Red Elk. He was an outstanding hide painter and he was from Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. He took me under his wing and showed me how to do hides - from the kill, all the way up to the processing and tanning - which was a very long, tedious process.

[Rose] So he's a purist teacher…

[Donald] Oh, yeah…he made me learn everything from wrap to glue and the whole bit.

(But back to the original question of how Don got into Ledger Art…) I have an ego and Herman would always win the prizes [for his artwork]…and I hated that, because I have to win the prizes.

So, I studied…historically after all the buffalo were pretty much slaughtered from the Plains, Native Americans turned to using the paper from ledger books - they would acquire them through bartering with the shop keepers for them (the books really had no value for the shop keepers once they were filled, other than as something to barter to the Native Americans). This was mostly the Lakota…which is my heritage.

Since it [drawing on ledger paper] is a historical form of artwork…I thought, "Well, that's cool. Herman can be the hide painter and I won't have to worry about him winning all the prizes anymore, because I'll be the ledger artist (one of the few back then doing this type of art - at least over 20 years ago).

So it really was a thing out of my ego that drew me to become a Ledger Artist.

[Rose] Do you attribute your start to Herman, too?

[Donald] Oh, yeah. Herman taught me all the symbolism, all the designs, and basically how to compose things and have the storyline behind all the things that I put on my ledger drawings - from the moccasin designs all the way to the shields, and even the horse themselves, they carry designs that I can interpret.

[Rose] Was Herman a family friend or did you meet him at school?

[Donald] Herman was about 30 years my senior. I was working at the Sioux Indian Art Museum for a summer program, and that's when I met Herman for the first time. We got into 2 workshops with Oscar Howe…a very well known artist at the University of South Dakota.

Herman had 4 boys, but they never wanted to learn his craft…and I was always pestering Herman because I wanted to do this. So, he took me under his wing and said, "Okay then, we'll learn it the right way and that's the way we'll do it."