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Lakota Winter Count

This horse stands for the year 1801-2 on this winter count, remembered as the first year the Lakota had horses.

Sam Kills Two, a Lakota winter count keeper, displays a winter count drawn on an animal hide. The photograph was taken in the late 1800s. Image courtesy of National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (03494000)


key idea
The Lakota people used pictures to mark the passage of time.

The Lakota people of the Great Plains did not have a written language until the late 1800s. Nor did they think of years as numbers, like 1800 or 1905. But they felt the importance of keeping track of history and found ways to mark the passage of time.

For the Lakota, a year began with the first snowfall of one winter and ended with the first snowfall of the next winter. At the end of a year, elders chose an unusual event to represent the whole year. The horse near the top left of this canvas, for example, stands for 1801–2, the year this group of Lakota got their first horse. People spoke about that year as “the time people had no horses.”

One man was responsible for keeping track of the years on a “winter count,” a calendar made up of pictures. This man, the winter count “keeper,” added a picture to the calendar for each year that passed. He was also expected to remember the details of all the years included on the calendar, in the proper order. The winter count images jogged his memory when he retold the stories of his people’s history on special occasions.

November 2005