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Winter Counts

Before Plains Indian tribes developed the complete written form of their languages, oral tradition was used extensively to preserve tribal histories. Pictorial accounts painted on bison hides, also known as a “winter count,” include symbols arranged chronologically. Each image marks a single year and depicts a collective, memorable event of the tribe.

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Sam Kills Two, also known as Beads, working on his winter count. The death of Turning Bear, killed by a locomotive in 1910, is shown in the second row just above Kills Two’s left foot, about 1900.
Photo courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, John Anderson Collection (RG2969.PH:2-1).

For the Lakota people, a year of the winter count measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. Oglala Lakota visionary Nicholas Black Elk referred to his December 1863 birth as “The Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed on the Tongue River,” as told to John G. Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks.

Of the 14 winter counts collected at the Smithsonian, all make reference to the Leonid meteor storm of November 1833, which became known as the “Year the Stars Fell.” View the entire Lakota Winter Counts online exhibit at Wintercounts.si.edu.

About amy kucera

A Nebraska native from Verdigre, Kucera received an Associate’s degree in English Education from Northeast Community College, Bachelor’s degree in English Writing from Wayne State College, and English language teaching certificate through the Cambridge University in Prague, Czech Republic. In addition to writing, her interests include history, music, art and traveling— especially via foot, horseback, canoe and kayak. She is currently the Executive Director at the John G. Neihardt State Historic Site in Bancroft.

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