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.
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.