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Lakota Winter Count

Horses. Tipis. Warriors. Buffalo. Images from Plains Indian life circle around the center of this canvas as if on a march.

But what is really going on in this picture? A warrior galloping on a brown horse (left of top center) doesn’t seem to notice the black-booted man standing just in front of him. Some people appear only from the neck or waist up, while others show their whole bodies. And some images are hard to make sense of at all.

This scene does not illustrate one specific moment in time. Instead, each figure stands for a particular year in the history of a Lakota encampment group. Together, these images form a “winter count,” a record of the years (or “winters”) in the tribe’s history. Stories told by the count’s “keeper”—the community’s historian and storyteller—brought that history to life for everyone else.

Winter Count, 19th-20th century
Pigment on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Lakota people used pictures to mark the passage of time.
Winter counts record various types of events.
The ideas recorded on a winter count were more important than the pictures.

Memory Aid: The images on winter counts helped Lakota historians recall the details of past events. Choose a topic you are studying in history and draw a sequence of images to help you remember the course of events. How is this different from drawing a single moment in time? Must your images be realistic to work as memory aids? Could other people make sense of your images if they already know the story you are telling? What if they know nothing about it?  

Comparing Winter Counts: Compare ten different winter counts from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution at One of them, the Long Soldier count, is very similar to the Institute’s count. (The site includes a downloadable teacher’s guide.)  

Oral History: Interview an older friend or relative about a historical event they lived through. Then read a description of that event in a reference book. How do the accounts compare? What does the oral history offer that the reference book does not? What does the reference book offer that the oral history does not?  

Traditions Transformed: Lakota artists have long drawn upon the pictorial traditions of past generations. Use Art Collector to examine a selection of 20th century Lakota works of art from the Institute's collection. (Click here to learn more about Art Collector.) Once in the collection, click on an image and then on the "More Info" button to find out more about the object. What characteristics of the winter count images appear in other works of art? In what aspects do the newer images differ? How might the style of the imagery contribute to the meaning of a newer work?  

Further Reading:
Burke, Christina E. Collecting Lakota Histories: Winter Count Pictographs and Texts in the National Anthropological Archives. American Indian Art Magazine vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 82-89, 102-103

Horse Capture, Joseph D. “Winteer Count.” Arts Magazine, March 2003, pp. 18-19.

McCoy, Ron. "Dakota Resources: A People Without History is Like Wind on the Buffalo Grass." South Dakota History, vol. 32, no, 1 (Spring 2002): 65-86.

National Anthropological Archives. "Lakota Winter Counts: The Teachers’ Guide." Downloadable at  

November 2005