Interview: Oglala Lakota Ledger Artist Joel Pulliam

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

Joel Pulliam sat at a desk the other day at Lakota Hope Ministry (LHM) in Whiteclay, Nebraska, signing two new works of ledger art, talking tragedy and hope in Whiteclay, art as a means of uplift for people on Pine Ridge, and having his work on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.  

The Oglala Lakota ledger artist is one of sixteen contemporary Native American artists whose work is on display at the NMAI as part of the new exhibit Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains

The exhibit features narrative art works described as “vibrant storytelling of society, war and peacetime, repression and expression” by 19th century masters like Bear’s Heart and Zo-tom alongside works by Plains tribes artists carrying narrative art traditions into the future.   

SDPB recently met up with Pulliam at the office of LHM — an organization that fights alcohol abuse inside the primary pipeline of alcohol to Pine Ridge — where he does volunteer work.  

The tiny unincorporated community of Whiteclay, just across the South Dakota state line and boundary of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is infamous for its two-block stretch of carry-out only aluminum-shed malt liquor shops. 

Whiteclay’s booze-fueled misery is so congealed that to photograph or even talk about it risks venturing into poverty porn. This correspondent will err on the side of omitting some of what I saw there. 

Pulliam, who has faced his own addiction struggles, works with LHM to fight the plague of alcohol abuse at Pine Ridge while supporting the legalization effort on the reservation. (A 2013 referendum to end reservation-wide prohibition won the popular vote, but legal challenges to licensing have kept Pine Ridge "dry" to date.) 

The irony doesn’t escape him. 

“It was a tough decision for me,” says Pulliam. “There was a lot of debate on social media, and I was part of that. At first I was on the side of the traditionalists. The [traditionalists] say, well our ancestors didn’t believe in alcohol, they say look at what alcohol has done to our people through the years with the violence, the addiction, the FAE [Fetal Alcohol Effects] and FAS [Fetal Alcohol Syndrome] epidemic that we’re suffering, the statistics are just alarming. So there’s that faction. And I have sympathy with that.”

“But then I started thinking that there’s four families in Whiteclay that own the bars. They’re millionaires. And it breaks my heart that these four families are capitalizing off my people.”

“I understand where the traditionalists are, but at the same time I don’t think it’s morally right that these families are taking advantage. Our people are going to obtain alcohol either way. You know, we’re part of America. In American society alcohol is legal.”

“Alcohol is going to be obtained anyway, so there's people that see the potential in that. Part of us taking our future into our own hands requires tax dollars, it requires progression. The revenue coming from alcohol can help the people with treatment, prevention, education.”

jameswhitecalf.jpgAt “Unbound”: Elk skin robe depicting war honors of Mountain Chief, ca. 1920. Attributed to James White Calf (Blackfeet, ca. 1858-1970). Photo: Katherine Fogden, NMAI

His work with LHM is just one way Pulliam contributes to his community. He recently co-founded the Pine Ridge Center for Artists and Crafters, an organization focused on empowering Lakota artists on the reservation to become self-sufficient. The non-profit is working to secure funding and studio space to give artists a place to create, and help them learn to effectively market their work. He envisions the Center as a place bursting with possibilities from the creation of a Lakota "Barbie" doll for kids to a print shop that could capitalize on demand by hotels and other businesses for Native-themed art.  

Pulliam started as a graphic designer. He's designed the Pine Ridge Pow Wow t-shirt for the last 24 years, and the poster for 15, among other things. He was drawn to ledger art — a medium first developed in the 1860’s by Plains Indian artists who drew or painted pictoral narratives on paper from accounting ledger books — later in his career. 

“About nine years ago I was introduced [to ledger art] by Daniel Long Soldier,” says Pulliam. “In my mind he’s the best Oglala Lakota artist, and he really took me under his wing and gave me a lot of guidance. I was really blown away by his use of imagery to preserve history. So I researched other early reservation and pre-reservation ledger artists. One is Amos Bad Heart Bull and his Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. What he did, he preserved so much tribal knowledge on warrior societies and Lakota heritage.”  

Pulliam's art depicts traditional Lakota figures — pencil drawn then filled in with watercolor on ledger paper — from healers to warriors. He painstakingly researches traditional dress down to each individual item — a female figure is adorned with both trade and traditional Lakota items from buffalo rawhide parfleche to German silver disc belt to deer antler knife. 

He sweats the details, rummaging around the region for his canvases — the paper from authentic 19th century ledger books. “I bought this ledger book [dated 1886] from a history buff that has an antique store," he says about the book he's currently using. "It’s from this county — Sheridan County, Nebraska. So this paper is historical from this area, from before the reservation was established in 1891.”

“I’ve obtained different books from people who send them to me who want one painting for trade. I trade with other artists. We’ll buy it from each other.” 

“If I find something interesting on the paper, I try to paint something relevant to it. I came across one with a woman’s name, so I painted a woman. I came across a doctor’s name, so I painted a bear medicine healer.”
At Unbound, Pulliam’s fidelity to the heritage of his craft comes full circle. His work will be displayed alongside seldom seen historic works by the likes of 19th century Hunkpapa Lakota master Long Soldier, as well as commissioned works by contemporary Native artists Dr. Ronald Burgess (Comanche), Sherman Chaddlesone (Kiowa), David Dragonfly (Pikuni), Lauren Good Day Giago (Arikara/Hidatsa/Blackfeet/Plains Cree), Darryl Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux), Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty (Assiniboine/Sioux), Terrance Guardipee (Blackfeet), Vanessa Jennings (Kiowa/Pima), Dallin Maybee (Arapaho), Chester Medicine Crow (Apsáalooke [Crow]), Chris Pappan (Kaw Nation/Osage/Cheyenne River Sioux), Martin E. Red Bear (Oglala Lakota), Norman Frank Sheridan (Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho), Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala/Lakota) and Jim Yellowhawk (Cheyenne River Lakota).  

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