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The Keeper

Each tiyospaye had a designated winter count historian or keeper. As the community historian, this member of the tribe—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 even chosen was not considered the most important event of the past year, only the most memorable.

The keeper was also responsible for retelling the tiyospaye’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 recall events in their own lives, such as the year of someone’s birth. It was important that the keeper, in consulting with the community elder’s, chose events that were easily remembered by the entire tribe.

When the keeper could no longer fulfill his role as historian, the duty was passed on to another male member of the tiyospaye—usually a son or nephew—whose first obligation was to copy his predecessor’s winter count. With the arrival of the Euro-American people which brought devastating change for the western tribes keepers began to add written captions to their pictograph images. By the end of the 19th century, some winter counts were only written texts. Eventually pictographs were replaced by written years-names as the device to record community history.

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

Horse Capture, Geoge, 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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