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In the book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz argues that only natives make “first order” interpretations of their cultures. For the Lakota it was the Winter Counts. With the new website access to this “first order” history interpretation is but a click away.

The intricate and content-laden Web site Lakota Winter Counts permits visitors to explore in detail winter counts, or pictographic calendars from Lakota(Teton) Sioux. Previously, the winter counts were accessible only to those who visited the Smithsonian Institution’s archives, but Lakota historians’ wish for greater access to their archived cultural patrimony led to collaboration with scholars and this online exhibit.

Few winter counts survive and even those that do are a fraction of the data that was kept by the Sioux.

These winter counts collected during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ten winter counts with their provenance, information about Lakota keepers (community historians), and data on their acquisition, are featured here. At last, a native perspective on two centuries of history is available to the Lakota and a worldwide audience.

Perhaps in time more maybe located. Many older Winter Counts have been lost to history. The counts which survive are a record of history as seen by the Lakota people. Each tribe had a historian which could be male or female. The historians tracked important events and added them to the Winter Count.

Seen below is Long Dog’s Winter Count 1801-1802, 1837-1838 and 1868-1869.

Winter counts, pictographic symbols painted on hides or cloth, served as mnemonic devices, recording notable events in Plains Indian history.

Winter counts, pictographic symbols painted on hides or cloth, served as mnemonic devices, recording notable events in Plains Indian history.

For example, the pictographs on Lone Dog’s winter count (Above) chronicle the outbreak of smallpox in 1801—1802, a successful hunt in 1837—1838, and the arrival of cattle from Texas in 1868—1869.

These were created during a time of culture change on the Plains, the winter counts record interactions with other tribes and U.S. soldiers; treaties; and even cosmic events. Cross-referencing winter count icons permits comparisons among tribal chronologies. In other words each tribe kept a count and using the counts from each tribe you could read how the entire Lakota state recorded history and further how the entire Sioux nations recorded history for the year.

The Smithsonian Institute has dedicated an entire online library to these Winter Counts. To understand Lakota history as told by the Lakota this is an excellent resource and starting point. Our history is of course deeper than a single Winter Count picture. But picture is you will a pictorial account f US history with every city adding a picture to tell the basic history for that year.

It would be an excellent starting point for history told by the people who lived it. Why? Because it’s local history which combines with greater and greater volumes to tell the bigger picture.

A review of the new Smithsonian site from history matters:

Organizationally, the site is functional and user friendly and appears in two formats (Flash 6 and hypertext markup language [HTML]). However, the site clearly privileges the Flash 6 version, which allows access to high-resolution images of each winter count, video segments of oral histories, maps, environmental data, and commentary on Lakota culture history. The flexibility of navigation and the ability to sort topics depicted in multiple winter counts, combined with powerful internal search engines, makes the Flash version more desirable.

Another outstanding feature is the site’s comprehensive “Teachers‘ Guide” and accompanying “Learning Resources.” For those who need a basic introduction to the concept of winter counts, the Lakota, or Plains history, the “Teachers’ Guide” is an excellent starting point. The guide includes lesson plans, maps, charts, and a glossary. Written for teachers and students, and organized thematically for grades K—4, 5—8, and 9—10, the materials have value beyond classroom use. Imbedded in the concise and clearly written guide are instructions for using the online exhibit. This short but informative section deconstructs the main sections of the site. Foregrounding those instructions on a pull-down menu or under the help button would have been helpful.

Another source at the Smithsonian which does a good job referencing the Winter Counts is:

Lakota winter counts, The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian (2007), edited by Candace S. Greene and Russell Thornton, I recommend this as an excellent accompaniment to this outstanding online exhibit.

~Michelle