October 10

Students learned about the background of winter counts and the importance of them witnin the Lakota culture.  


A record of history

For generations, Plains Indians drew pictographs to document their experiences with the natural, human and super- natural worlds. The Lakota term for winter counts is waniyetu wowapi. The word wowapi translates into English as “anything which is marked and can be read or counted,” meaning any book, letter or two-dimensional drawing. Waniyetu is the Lakota word for year, which is measured from first snow to first snow.

Drawn onto a variety of material—buffalo skin, deer hide, muslin or paper—winter counts are composed of pictographs organized in spirals or in horizontal rows. Each pictograph represents a year in the history of a Lakota community and depicts an unusual or memorable event that affected the group of people who camped together. The pictographs were organized in chronological order so that the winter count as a whole served as a mnemonic device, used to spur people’s memories and provide an outline for the group’s oral historian. Winter counts were also used by individual community members who referred to specific years as dates marking events in their own lives.

Winter counts were dynamic documents of recorded history. Variations between similar counts might have occurred if a community historian chose to emphasize a different aspect of an event—or select another event all together. Differences among winter count narratives might also be the result of inaccurate or incomplete translation from Lakota to English. The counts, like all histories, are a selective representation of a people’s past. The choices reflect both the community’s history and culture.

The Keeper

Each tiospaye had a designated winter count keeper. As the community historian, this member of the group—always a man—was responsible for maintaining the winter count and remembering its stories. Before recording the past year on the count, the keeper consulted with a council of elders to choose an appropriate event by which to remember the year. The event chosen was not considered the most important event of the past year, but only the most memorable. For instance, sacred ceremonies that occurred regularly were not often chosen because the event was not unique to a particular year.

The keeper was also responsible for retelling the tiospaye’s history at various times throughout the year. During ceremonies or other social gatherings, he would bring out the count and use it as a visual reference to name the years. In this way, the members of the band knew their history and could use particular years to index events in their own lives, such as the year of someone’s birth. It was important that the keeper, in consultation with the band’s elders, chose events that were easily remembered by his entire band.

When the keeper could no longer fulfill his role as historian, the duty was passed on to another male member of the tiosypaye— usually a son or nephew—whose first obligation was to copy his predecessor’s winter count. With the advent of literacy, keepers began to add written captions to the images. By the end of the 19th century, some winter counts were only written texts. Pictographs were replaced by written year-names as the device of choice.

We also explored the website: http://wintercounts.si.edu/index.html