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The Lakota Winter Count

Painted buffalo hide

A winter count is a record of history. For generations, Plains Indians drew pictographs to document their daily experiences. The Lakota term for winter count is wniyetu wowapi. The word Wowapi translates as “anything that can be read or counted.” Waniyetu is the Lakota word for year, which is measured from first snow to first snow.

Usually drawn on buffalo skin or deer hide, Lakota winter counts are composed of pictographs organized in spiral or horizontal rows. Each pictograph represents a year in history of a Lakota community. The pictographs were organized in chronological order so that the winter count provided an outline of events for the community’s Keeper or oral historian.

Kills Two, Brule Medicine Man, painting hide

Kills Two, Brule Sioux Medicine Man, is painting on a deer hide the “Big Missouri” Winter Count the pictorial record of their tribe from 1876-1926. Photography by John A. Anderson, c. 1923.

Winter counts were also used by individuals within the tribal community to record specific events in their own lives. Tribal communities made up of members of extended family or tiyospayes also recorded their story and experiences on a winter count so it was not uncommon to have multiple copies of winter counts within a community.

Winter counts were dynamic documents of recorded history. Variations between similar counts 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 may also be the result of inaccurate translation from Lakota to English. The winter count, like history, is selective representation of a people’s past. The narratives usually reflect both the community’s history and culture.

Carkeek-Cheney, Roberta; Sioux Winter Count: A 131-Year Calendar of Events, Naturegraph Publishers, Inc., Happy Camp, CA, 1998.

Horse Capture, George, P., Vitart, Anne, Waldberg, Michel, West, Richard W., Jr.; Robes of Splendor: Native North American Painted Buffalo Hides, The New Press, New York, NY, 1993.


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