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Lakota Winter Count

This red star, found at the bottom center of the canvas, represents a meteor shower seen throughout North America on November 12, 1833. Every Lakota winter count has a variation of this image for the year 1833-34.

The winter of 1818-19, known as the “sand-blowing year,” is pictured as a tipi with brush piled around it as a windbreak.

A smallpox epidemic killed about 10,000 people on the Great Plains in three weeks during 1837-38. On this winter count, a man covered with spots is used to note smallpox outbreaks in three different years.

key idea
Winter counts record various types of events.

The images on a winter count might refer to natural occurrences, such as meteor showers, unusual weather, or outbreaks of disease. Or they might stand for events such as battles, encounters with European-Americans, or the death of a leader. The events chosen for the count were not necessarily the most important of the year. But they had to be unique and memorable for the entire community.

More than 150 Lakota winter counts exist today, in versions made by several different encampment groups. Certain years are marked by events important to Lakota groups all across the Great Plains. Other years are noted by local happenings, important only to the people who made that particular count.

Scholars can figure out what year an image refers to by matching up the count with known events. A dramatic meteor shower in 1833, for example, appears on every Lakota winter count for that year. Counting from that symbol, we can tell that this calendar shows the years 1798 to 1904. (The years spiral inward, starting at the top left corner and ending near the center.)

Lakota hunters killed a white buffalo in 1858-59, a spiritually important event.
November 2005