Native American Art: Winter Counts

A Winter Count is the Native American tradition of visually archiving their tribal history and culture...a few have even documented significant natural occurrences.

The Lakota are revered for their Winter Counts. Some can span hundreds of years - each year is carefully represented with a pictograph that denotes the most outstanding moment experienced by the tribe for that particular timeframe.

Recording history, one image at a time
During the long, cold winter months, the Plains Indians would often gather to reflect on the past and add the year's essence to their annual calendar...and since it was usually done during the winter, this act was known as "counting by winters".

This yearly snapshot often captured an important event, memorable exploit, or notable happening within the individual tribal community; it also became the name of that particular year.

Historian or Artist?
The community historian (also called a "keeper") was designated by the tribe to record all their significant events and experiences. From this annual collection of images, the single pictograph chosen to represent the entire year on the Winter Count was selected by the band's council of elders.

As a new picture was added to the Winter Count each year, these physical records became an amazing archive of the tribe's history…carefully painted by the band's historian, they also resonated with beauty.

These histories were typically painted on buffalo hides, although after the late 19th century (when the buffalo became scarce), they began using other materials like ledger paper.

The collection of annual pictographs were organized on the buffalo hide in chronological order and arranged in spiral or horizontal rows. The images often began on either the left or right side of the composition.

Result: A visual history
When these image rich robes were combined with the Lakota people's rich oral tradition, a Winter Count transformed into a powerful vehicle for recounting the tribe's legacy.