Winter count

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Kiowa winter count by Anko, covers summers and winters for 37 months, 1889-92, ca. 1895. National Archives and Records Administration Calendari kiowa.jpg
Kiowa winter count by Anko, covers summers and winters for 37 months, 1889-92, ca. 1895. National Archives and Records Administration

Winter counts (Lakota: waníyetu wówapi or waníyetu iyáwapi) are pictorial calendars or histories in which tribal records and events were recorded by Native Americans in North America. The Blackfeet, Mandan, Kiowa, Lakota, and other Plains tribes used winter counts extensively. There are approximately one hundred winter counts in existence, but many of these are duplicates.

Lakota language Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes

Lakota, also referred to as Lakhota, Teton or Teton Sioux, is a Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes. Though generally taught and considered by speakers as a separate language, Lakota is mutually intelligible with the other two languages, and is considered by most linguists as one of the three major varieties of the Sioux language.

Blackfoot Confederacy ethnic group

The Blackfoot Confederacy, Niitsitapi or Siksikaitsitapi is a historic collective name for the four bands that make up the Blackfoot or Blackfeet people: three First Nation band governments in the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, and one federally recognized Native American tribe in Montana, United States. The Siksika ("Blackfoot"), the Kainai or Kainah ("Blood"), and the Northern Piegan or Peigan or Piikani reside in Canada; the Southern Piegan/Piegan Blackfeet are located in the United States, where they are also known as the Blackfeet Nation. In modern use, the term is sometimes used only for the three First Nations in Canada.

Mandan ethnic group

The Mandan are a Native American tribe of the Great Plains who have lived for centuries primarily in what is now North Dakota. They are enrolled in the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation. About half of the Mandan still reside in the area of the reservation; the rest reside around the United States and in Canada.



Most winter counts have a single pictograph symbolizing each year, based on the most memorable event of that year. For Lakota people, years ran from first snowfall to first snowfall. [2] Kiowa winter counts usually feature two marks per year – one for winter and one marking the summer Sun Dance. [3] The glyphs representing significant events would be used as a reference that could be consulted regarding the order of the years. More extensive oral histories were passed down using the winter counts as guide posts.

Traditionally each band would choose a single keeper of the winter count. Until the 20th century, these keepers were always men. They would consult with tribal elders to reach a consensus for choosing a name for the year. The keeper chose his successor in recording the count, who was often a family member. [2]

Until the late 19th century, winter counts were recorded on buffalo hides. When buffalo became scarce, keepers resorted to using muslin, linen, or paper. [2] The annual pictographs began on either the left or right side of the drawing surface and could be run in lines, spirals, or serpentine patterns.

Corroborating dates

Garrick Mallery, a Smithsonian scholar, recognized that one of those events, "The Year the Stars Fell," correlated with the Leonid meteor storm of November 1833. He used that event to correlate the Lakota winter counts with western calendars and analyze the history of the people. [2]

Garrick Mallery American ethnologist

Garrick Mallery was an American ethnologist specializing in Native American sign language and pictographs.

Leonids meteor shower

The Leonids are a prolific meteor shower associated with the comet Tempel–Tuttle, which are also known for their spectacular meteor storms that occur about every 33 years. The Leonids get their name from the location of their radiant in the constellation Leo: the meteors appear to radiate from that point in the sky. Their proper Greek name should be Leontids, but the word was initially constructed as a Greek/Latin hybrid and it has been used since. They peak in the month of November.

Known winter counts

Oglala Lakota

  • Tradition 1: No Ears, John Colhoff, Flying Hawk, Baptiste Garnier
  • Tradition 2: Short Man
  • Tradition 3: White Cow Killer
  • Tradition 4: Iron Crow, Wounded Bear
  • Tradition 5: Red Horse Owner
  • Tradition 6: Cloud Shield
  • Tradition 7: American Horse
  • Tradition 8: Breast
Flying Hawk Lakota leader

Flying Hawk was an Oglala Lakota warrior, historian, educator and philosopher. Flying Hawk's life chronicles the history of the Oglala Lakota people through the 19th and early 20th centuries, as he fought to deflect the worst effects of white rule; educate his people and preserve sacred Oglala Lakota land and heritage. Chief Flying Hawk was a combatant in Red Cloud's War and in nearly all of the fights with the U.S. Army during the Great Sioux War of 1876. He fought alongside his first cousin Crazy Horse and his brothers Kicking Bear and Black Fox II in the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, and was present at the death of Crazy Horse in 1877 and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Chief Flying Hawk was one of the five warrior cousins who sacrificed blood and flesh for Crazy Horse at the Last Sun Dance of 1877. Chief Flying Hawk was the author of his commentaries and accounts of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse and the Wounded Knee Massacre, and of Native American warriors and statesmen from who fought to protect their families, defend the invasion of their lands and preserve their culture. Chief Flying Hawk was probably the longest standing Wild Wester, traveling for over 30 years throughout the United States and Europe from about 1898 to about 1930. Chief Flying Hawk was an educator and believed public education was essential to preserve Lakota culture. He frequently visited public schools for presentations. Chief Flying Hawk leaves a legacy of Native American philosophy and his winter count covers nearly 150 years of Lakota history.

American Horse Lakota chief (1840-1908)

American Horse was an Oglala Lakota chief, statesman, educator and historian. American Horse is notable in American history as a U.S. Army Indian Scout and a progressive Oglala Lakota leader who promoted friendly associations with whites and education for his people. American Horse opposed Crazy Horse during the Great Sioux War of 1876–1877 and the Ghost Dance Movement of 1890, and was a Lakota delegate to Washington. American Horse was one of the first Wild Westers with Buffalo Bill's Wild West and a supporter of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. "His record as a councillor of his people and his policy in the new situation that confronted them was manly and consistent and he was known for his eloquence."

Brulé Lakota

  • Battiste Good and High Hawk
  • Rosebud
  • Swift Bear
  • Swift Dog
  • Iron Shell

Hunkpapa Lakota

  • Iron Dog
  • Lone Dog
  • Long Soldier
  • Major Bush

Miniconjou Lakota

  • Swan
  • Thin Elk / Wata Peta (Steamboat), 1821-1877 [4]

Other Lakota, and Dakota

  • Hardin Winter Count
  • Mato Sapa
  • Northern
  • The Flame
  • Lone Dog's winter count [5] [6]


  • Bad Head, 1810-1883, oral count recorded [7]
  • Bull Plume, 1794-1924, survives only as copied drawings from 1912 [7]
  • Percy Creighton, 1831-1938 [8]


  • Butterfly, 1833-1870s [9]
  • Foolish Woman, 1833-1870s [9]


See also


  1. "Pictures of Indians in the United States." The National Archives. (retrieved 4 Feb 2010)
  2. 1 2 3 4 Hansen, 42-45
  3. Greene and Thorton, 300
  4. Sundstrom, Linea. "The Thin Elk/Steamboat Winter Count: A Study in Lakota Pictography", Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum, 2003 (retrieved 3 May 2010)
  5. McClure, Nancy. "Treasures from our West: Lone Dog's winter count". Originally featured in Points West (Winter 2011). Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  6. "Lone Dog Winter Count". Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  7. 1 2 Greene and Thornton, 301
  8. Greene and Thornton, 314
  9. 1 2 3 Greene and Thornton, 302
  10. Greene and Thornton, 300
  11. 1 2 Greene and Thornton, 304
  12. Greene and Thornton, 306
  13. Greene and Thornton, 309
  14. Greene and Thornton, 310

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