A winter count is a record of history. For generations, Plains Indians drew pictographs to document their daily experiences.
Usually drawn on buffalo or deer hide, Lakota winter counts are composed of pictographs organized in a 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.
The keeper was always a man, and he 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, only the most memorable.
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 — thiyóšpaye — 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 a selective representation of a people’s past. The narratives usually reflect both the community’s history and culture.
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.
Carkeek-Cheney, Roberta; Sioux Winter Count: A 131-Year Calendar of Events, Naturegraph Publishers, Inc., Happy Camp, CA, 1998.