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Lakota Winter Count


In the late 1800s, Lakota artists often drew on lined paper. By then, paper was common but hides were in short supply.
Roan Eagle (Lakota), Woman with Two Dogs and Two Children Moving Camp, about 1890,
Ink, watercolor, graphite, ledger paper


key idea
The ideas recorded on a winter count were more important than the pictures.

The first winter counts were drawn on animal skins. As the keeper ran out of room or the hide wore out, he copied the pictures onto another surface—often a muslin cloth like this canvas or, in the late 1800s, a paper ledger book. Keeping a record of the images and their stories was more important than having the “original” count.

Another reason for copying a winter count was the retirement of a keeper. The span of time covered by winter counts—often one hundred years or more—was longer than one person could record. The first task of a new keeper (usually a son or nephew of the retiring keeper) was to make his own copy, to learn the count’s symbols and stories. Then, as each new year passed, he added a new picture to his copy of the count.

Many of the winter counts now in museums are copies made for non-Indian collectors. In some cases, the collectors also wrote down the stories told by the keepers. Toward the end of the 19th century, many keepers were making copies of winter counts for sale, and some charged extra for telling the count’s story. The stories are very important because they explain historical events from the Lakota point of view.

November 2005