BISMARCK, N.D. – The first pictograph on the High Dog Winter Count, carefully drawn a hundred years ago by a hand that still practiced the old style form, meaning that it wasn’t drawn with the detail of post-Catlin/Bodmer pictography nor the finesse of ledgergraph art, begins in the top left corner of a cotton banner, which is followed by more pictographs intentionally wound in a spiral from the outside in.
The story of the first pictograph is, “Wiyáka tȟotȟó uŋ akíčilowaŋpi,” meaning “They sang praises using very blue feathers.” The pictograph recalls a time when the Huŋkphápȟa honored demonstrations of leadership and good character with a gift of blue jay feathers. Women were honored with a blue cloud stone, a blue pendant worn upon their forehead.
High Dog kept the intertwined histories of the Huŋkphápȟa and Iháŋktȟuwaŋna peoples on a winter count painted on cotton. He resided on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation when the reservation era began,
Waníyetu Wówapi kiŋ, the winter count, is a pictographic memory device that records a tribe’s history. Once a year, each tribe, band, or family would gather and determine how best to remember the year. One outstanding event was chosen, and the year was named, then the winter count keeper would render the year in pictograph. At various times throughout the year, he (and even women too) would display the winter count at various gatherings or events and share the history of the people. Sometimes when a new guest arrived, the occasion inspired the keeper to share the history of that tribe, band, or family.
The pre-reservation winter counts were executed on brain-tanned bison robes in circular patterns from the inside-out. Reservation era winter counts were executed on buckskin or canvas – as bison were nearly obliterated from Makȟóčhe Wašté, “This Beautiful Country,” as the Lakȟóta knew it – in patterns which clearly indicated an irrevocable change to a beautiful way of life.
“‘This Beautiful Country,’ as the Lakȟóta knew it…”
The winter count was named after the keeper and when he went on his journey, the winter count went with him. Sometimes someone was appointed to keep the winter count tradition, sometimes it was handed down to a son, grandson, nephew, or other promising individual. Some women picked up the tradition, as men went off to war – some never to return, were sent off to boarding school, or succumbed to addiction as a means to cope with a changed world.
The unique relationship each Thíthuŋwaŋ tribe, band, or family has with their landscape, their homeland is reflected in their winter counts. This is information that cannot be discounted.
The Lakȟóta year wasn’t set in stone. Some Thíthuŋwaŋ reckoned the year from first snow fall to first snowfall, others from last snow to last snow, and even one that determined the year from high summer to high summer. The year was based on a lunar calendar which lasted thirteen months. Each moon was named for the natural history in that cycle (ex. Maǧákšiča Aglí Wi, or “Moon When The Geese Return;” Čhaŋpȟásapa Wi, or “Moon Of Ripe Chokecherries”).
Some Thíthuŋwaŋ tribes, bands, and families even refer to the winter count variously as either “Waníyetu Wówapi,” (i.e. Huŋkphápȟa) or “Waníyetu Iyáwapi” (Oglála).
This information becomes vital when interpreting the winter count, as various Lakȟóta calendar years overlapped. The Blue Thunder Winter Count (Iháŋkthuŋwaŋna) entry for circa 1833 is actually 1833-34 (spring 1833 to spring 1834), and is remembered as “wičháȟpi hiŋȟpáya,” or “the year the stars fell.” The High Dog Winter Count (Huŋkphápȟa) entry for circa 1833 is actually 1832-33 (fall 1832 to fall 1833), and is remembered as “wičháȟpi okhíčamna,” or “the stars moved all around.”
“…‘wičháȟpi hiŋȟpáya,’ or ‘the year the stars fell.’”
A well-meaning moderator on a community page of a social media website a few weeks ago had shared a few entries of the Šuŋká Wakáŋtuya Waníyetu Wówapi, the Dog Raised Up In High Regard Winter Count (the “High Dog Winter Count), removed the tribal affiliation from this piece of history, replaced an attribution of the work, on one of the entries, from “Maȟpíya Kiŋyáŋ” (Flying Cloud from Standing Rock) to “Sam Kills Two” (aka “Beads, Sičáŋǧu; keeper of the Big Missouri Winter Count). The interpreters of the High Dog Winter Count was Rev. Aaron Beede, an Episcopal missionary on Standing Rock and Flying Cloud (Sihásapa/Iháŋktȟuwaŋna).
One might see how the digital scribe in question may have mistook “Beede” for “Beads,” and amended the information as he understood it. This very assumption, however, only adds to the misrepresentation of the information. What comes off is an amended copy and paste job with good intentions. This new interpretation, however, removes the Huŋkphápha from a landscape that is theirs, and rewrites Sičáŋǧu history into a landscape and history that isn’t Sičáŋǧu.
The winter count tradition was recorded by paternalistic anthropologists as an art form, disregarding the historical perspective and cultural understanding, throughout the reservation era. Many winter count keepers quit recording “the time of nothing” or died, and the tradition faded to a handful. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a few historians and anthropologists rediscovered the winter count and began to recognize that these traditional works have a valuable contribution to the history of the west.
It is a sad state when there are probably more non-native people today who know more about the winter count tradition than there are native people who do.
“The lineage of information is as important as the information itself.”
One of the traditional norms of the Great Plains Indians knowing where or from whom the traditional stories come. The lineage of information is as important as the information itself. Just telling a story, someone may ask, “Where did you hear that one?” or “Who told you that?” The attribution of the story is always acknowledged. At the end of sharing a story from one of the winter count entries, the keeper would conclude by saying, “Keúŋkiyapi,” “They said that.”
There is a need to tell our own stories, from our own sources, and they should be shared at every opportunity in our communities. It is also important to make the distinction from which nation, tribe, band, and family, because that distinction is why our first nations (even those of the same affiliation) are different from one another.
The last pictograph on the High Dog Winter Count concludes with the arrival of a comet seen in the sky above the vast prairie steppe. It reads, “Wičáȟpi waŋ ilé ú kiŋ,” meaning, “A burning star came this way.” There were six comets visible to the naked eye that year, but only one meant something special to the Huŋkphápȟa and Iháŋktȟuwaŋna peoples on Standing Rock.