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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Winter Counts on the Northern Great Plains

By Aaron L. Barth
Reposted from here.

Chapter 4 of The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter
Counts at the Smithsonian
In the last couple days, Dakota Goodhouse (his blog linked here) and I have been hanging out in downtown Fargo, as he's here to expand on the Native tradition of winter counts. He crashed at my place for a couple nights, and last night we had dinner here after his talk at the Spirit Room (this collaboratively organized and funded by the Fargo-West Fargo Public Schools Indian Education Program and the North Dakota Humanities Council). Dakota and I chatted about winter counts, and about future prospects of scholarly interest and inquiry.

I'm thinking that winter counts, and the history of them, have become popular enough that I don't really need to explain them. But just in case, a winter count is an annual pictograph painted onto the larger medium of buffalo or elk hides. In the latter part of the 19th century, they were painted onto canvas. These counts provided the owner or memory group with a traceable past, the pictograph often representative of a successful high-point of that year. Dakota Goodhouse continues pushing this tradition in new directions today, in 2013.

While Dakota explained the winter counts to the group at the Spirit Room last night, he pointed to one of his buffalo hides while expanding on how he saw something different in that particular account between today and a couple years ago. Impressionistically, this account is a symmetrical series of triangles running around the circumferences of a couple circles. Some years ago, Dakota said he used to see this as a Native headdress that was laid out on the floor. Today, though, he said he perceives of it as the plains indigene narrative attached to what we call "sun dogs." He said in the Lakota tradition, "sun dogs" are thought of more as camp fires next to the sun. 

Dakota explains the stories reflected by and attached to the pictographs on the bison hide.
These stories got me thinking of something historians deal with every now and then, and that's one-dimensional thinkers who sometimes polemically say, "Well, cultures with oral traditions don't have a history, or if they do it's impossible to trace." This is always a fun question to respond to. Last night I was thinking more-so of how a person who reads a novel, or a good piece of history, is likely to walk away with different perceptions about the same text within the span of two or more readings.

A photo of Dakota Goodhouse being
This is similar to the winter count. Dakota explained the difference in how one individual, when looking at the bison robe laid out, might see a native headdress while another might see sun dogs, parhelia, or what the Dakota call wi'aceti, this roughly translated and defined as "when the sun makes fires." Dakota added that the winters on the northern Great Plains are often cold enough to induce the sun to make camp fires to keep it warm.

This story, in turn, induced me to abandon the sun dog phrase and replace it with wi'aceti (pronounced "we-ah-che-tee"). If anyone wants to join me on the northern Great Plains in this effort, by all means. If we hear someone say "sun dog," we can add to that wi'aceti, and with explanation.

One more note: Dakota contributed heavily to a piece of winter count scholarship that you might be interested in, chapter 4 of Candace Greene and Russell Thornton, The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007). Check it out at the link here.

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