Monday, May 16, 2011

Winter Counts: The Art of History

The book "Moonstick: The Seasons of the Sioux" by Eve Bunting and John Sandford provides wonderful concise explanations of the months, and beautiful illustrations of the seasons. Its a children's book, but worth looking through for information. 
Winter Counts: The Art of History
Pictographic Lakota History
By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS - In the age before the railroad, before horses and guns, the Dakota and Lakota Sioux regarded the full passing of a year in thirteen months. Thirteen twenty-eight or twenty-nine day months.

The year ended and began with the arrival of the spring, when the birds flocked north, when the ice broke on the Missouri, when the trees began to bud, and when bison calves were born. The sources for the Smithsonian however, state that the year is measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. One of those sources was an anthropologist in the 1880s names Garrick Mallory, who heard it first-hand from the people he was recording the winter counts.

The Dakota/Lakota kept track of time two ways. The first method was by using counting sticks. There were thirteen sticks, about the size of tipi pins, to represent the lunar months, and a long stave upon which were carved notches representing each passing day, and in the case of the winter count keeper Brown Hat, years. 

Above is a colored example of Baptiste Good 's (Brown Hat's) winter count. The complete winter count can be viewed in the text "Picture Writing of the American Indians, Vols. 1 & 2" by Garrick Mallory. 

The second method for tracking time was the winter count. The Dakota/Lakota call it WaniyÄ—tu Wowapi [lit. Winter They-Picture], freely translated as “Winter Count.” A winter count is a mnemonic device with a picture representing a year. The year is named rather than numbered. 

In the “dog days” (the days before horses) as the traditional elders say, the tribe would come together in the spring, as one year ended and a new one began, to decide what to name the year, then the winter count keeper would draw the year accordingly. 

Some anthropologists say that the winter count tradition began after first contact. The John K. Bear winter count begins with Wicokicize tanka [lit. Battle Big], and according to anthropologist James Howard, there are three tribes whom the Dakota/Lakota were at war with: the Assiniboine, the Cree, and the Chippewa. In one of the biggest battles fought between the Sioux and Chippewa was one which took place at Mille Lac in 1682. 1682, is also the year that the John K. Bear winter count has been determined to begin in. 

The John J. Bear winter count also starts two years before first contact, at least with this particular band of Sioux, the Ihanktowana (or Yanktonai). This winter count records 1684 as Wasicun tokahcin ahi kin [lit. takes-the-fat first came the], or “The very first white man they had ever seen among them,” or “the first white men came to them.” James Howard reasoned that the eastern Sioux, the Dakota, had made contact about 1640, with Jean Nicolet, and that the western branches of Sioux very probably didn’t have their first contact until the arrival of Nicholas Perrot in 1682. 

The Brown Hat winter count, also known as the Baptiste Good winter count, is a wonderful anomaly, for it begins in A.D. 901 with the coming of the White Buffalo Calf Woman bringing the gift of the sacred pipe and continues with various mythological histories and the arrival of the horse (which wasn’t reintroduced to North American until the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico in the early 16th century). 

Above is Blue Thunder's winter count, currently in the collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. It measures about 3' x 15' and was originally a tipi liner. The material is cotton, the pigments are a combination of ink, pencil, and paint.

Winter counts are an interesting subject to search for in libraries, archives, and museums. They defy being categorized. Is it philosophy? Is it psychology? Is it religious studies? Is it history or social science? Is it language? Is it art? Is it geography? Winter counts have been designated as a multi-discipline study, and are simply Dakota/Lakota.

The John K. Bear winter count has entries that fit philosophy, even an entry related to psychology case studies conducted by the North Dakota State Hospital back in the 1970s. It is definitely history. It is language. It is art. Winter counts even contain geographical data relating to movements over the plains and movements (due to warfare) of other tribes. They also contain meteorological data with references to deathly cold winters, blistering summers, devastating floods, and earthquakes. They even mention astronomical events such as unusually luminescent northern lights turning night to day, the passing of asteroids, comets, and falling stars.

The winter count is an art, and not just art, but the ability to relate the history to the listener. The winter count keeper was selected by the people made up of a council of elders, traditional tribal leaders, and spiritual leaders or advisors, for his artistic ability and his for his charisma or public speaking. The winter count keeper was referred to as Ehanna wicohan oyakapi [lit. Long-ago knowledge relating-to-the-people], relating the history to the people, or simply “historian.”

Above is the "British Museum" winter count, named that only because its part of the collection there. It is actually a variant of Blue Thunder's winter count.

Women have kept the tradition of the winter count too, in two cases at least. The Blue Thunder winter count was kept by a female relative, Yellow Lodge Woman, and was added to for a few years, until it was sold to the State Historical Society of North Dakota (it was the 1930s and the money was desperately needed).

The winter count tradition is still practiced. Cataloging and interpreting winter counts is on-going across the country as museums and other institutions realize they are more than an art piece.

The Brule winter count above is also a home. Winter counts were painted on hides, tipi liners, cloth, in ledger books, and also on the tipi.

The Smithsonian Institute has a wonderful online interactive exhibit of ten Lakota winter counts, including the Bapiste Good winter count (but only entries from 1700-01 and on). Visit:

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