North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

The Winter Count

Click on a row in the image to read the history depicted in this Winter Count.

Telling Time

Groups of people record their history even when they do not have written languages. They do so by passing down events orally or by recording them pictorially. The Lakota recorded their history by creating winter counts, which are drawings of historical events on animal hides or muslin.

In the past, every Lakota band had a keeper of the winter count. Once a year the leaders reviewed the important events of the previous year and together selected the single most significant one, which the keeper added to the long list of annual pictographs, consisting of as many as 200 entries. He could recite the story of each successive winter on this lengthy winter count, thereby passing on history orally. Such memorable events as smallpox epidemics, wars, school attendance, and the move from tipi to cabin were noted on the winter counts. Tribal members could recall the year of their birth by the event associated with their birth date.

By the 1930s the tradition of the winter count had generally ceased. Dr. Thomas Red Owl Haukaas created the Carnegie Winter Count from a 1990s viewpoint, including social and political issues that have affected the lives of Lakota people up to modern times. In this unique contemporary winter count, Dr. Haukaas depicted 125 yearly events affecting his tribe, the Sicangu Lakota people on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Haukaas began the winter count with the creation of the reservation in 1868–1869 and ended with the 500th anniversary of Columbus' encounter with Native Americans. Since there is no count keeper, he created a guide book that gives an explanation of the icon for each year.

Image: Carnegie Winter Count
Thomas Red Owl Haukaas, M.D. (1950- ), Sicangu (Brule) Lakota/Creole, 1995
Brain-tanned deer (Odocoileus sp.) hide, ink, commercial paint, nylon sinew; L 123.0 x W 95.7 cm; 36025-1a

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