Lakota Winter Count
Horses. Tipis. Warriors. Buffalo. Images from Plains Indian life circle around the center of this canvas as if on a march.
But what is really going on in this picture? A warrior galloping on a brown horse (left of top center) doesn’t seem to notice the black-booted man standing just in front of him. Some people appear only from the neck or waist up, while others show their whole bodies. And some images are hard to make sense of at all.
This scene does not illustrate one specific moment in time. Instead, each figure stands for a particular year in the history of a Lakota encampment group. Together, these images form a winter count, a record of the years (or winters) in the community’s history. Stories told by the count’s keeper the community’s historian and storyteller brought that history to life for everyone else.
KEY IDEA ONE
The Lakota people used pictures to mark the passage of time.
For the Lakota, a year began with the first snowfall of one winter and ended with the first snowfall of the next winter. At the end of a year, elders chose an unusual event to represent the whole year. The horse near the top left of this canvas, for example, stands for 1801-2, the year this group of Lakota got their first horse. People spoke about that year as the time people had no horses.
One man was responsible for keeping track of the years on a winter count, a calendar made up of pictures. This man, the winter count keeper, added a picture to the calendar for each year that passed. He was also expected to remember the details of all the years included on the calendar, in the proper order. The winter count images jogged his memory when he retold the stories of his people’s history on special occasions.
This horse stands for the year 1801-2 on this winter count, remembered as the first year the Lakota had horses.
Sam Kills Two, a Lakota winter count keeper, displays a winter count drawn on an animal hide.
KEY IDEA TWO
Winter counts record various types of events.
More than 150 Lakota winter counts exist today, in versions made by several different encampment groups. Certain years are marked by events important to Lakota groups all across the Great Plains. Other years are noted by local happenings, important only to the people who made that particular count.
Scholars can figure out what year an image refers to by matching up the count with known events. A dramatic meteor shower in 1833, for example, appears on every Lakota winter count for that year. Counting from that symbol, we can tell that this calendar shows the years 1798 to 1904. (The years spiral inward, starting at the top left corner and ending near the center.)
The winter of 1818-19, known as the sand-blowing year, is pictured as a tipi with brush piled around it as a windbreak.
A smallpox epidemic killed about 10,000 people on the Great Plains in three weeks during 1837-38. On this winter count, a man covered with spots is used to note smallpox outbreaks in three different years.
KEY IDEA THREE
The ideas recorded on a winter count were more important than the pictures.
Another reason for copying a winter count was the retirement of a keeper. The span of time covered by winter counts often one hundred years or more was longer than one person could record. The first task of a new keeper (usually a son or nephew of the retiring keeper) was to make his own copy, to learn the count’s symbols and stories. Then, as each new year passed, he added a new picture to his copy of the count.
Many of the winters counts now in museums are copies made for non-Indian collectors. In some cases, the collectors also wrote down the stories told by the keepers. Toward the end of the 19th century, many keepers were making copies of winter counts for sale, and some charged extra for telling the count’s story. The stories are very important because they explain historical events from the Lakota point of view.
the late 1800s, Lakota artists often drew on lined paper. By then, paper was common but hides were in short supply.
The images on winter counts helped Lakota historians recall the details of past events. Choose a topic you are studying in history and draw a sequence of images to help you remember the course of events. How is this different from drawing a single moment in time? Must your images be realistic to work as memory aids? Could other people make sense of your images if they already know the story you are telling? What if they know nothing about it?
Comparing Winter Counts
Interview an older friend or relative about a historical event they lived through. Then read a description of that event in a reference book. How do the accounts compare? What does the oral history offer that the reference book does not? What does the reference book offer that the oral history does not?
Lakota artists have long drawn upon the pictorial traditions of past generations. Use Art Collector to examine a selection of 20th century Lakota works of art from the Institute’s collection. (Click here to learn more about Art Collector.) Once in the collection, click on an image and then on the “More Info” button to find out more about the object. What characteristics of the winter count images appear in other works of art? In what aspects do the newer images differ? How might the style of the imagery contribute to the meaning of a newer work?
Burke, Christina E. Collecting Lakota Histories: Winter Count Pictographs and Texts in the National Anthropological Archives. American Indian Art Magazine vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 82-89, 102-103
Horse Capture, Joseph D. Winter Count. Arts Magazine, March 2003, pp. 18-19.
McCoy, Ron. “Dakota Resources: A People Without History is Like Wind on the Buffalo Grass.” South Dakota History, vol. 32, no, 1 (Spring 2002): 65-86.
National Anthropological Archives. “Lakota Winter Counts: The Teachers Guide.” Downloadable at wintercounts.si.edu.