rare, original oral history of Indian life has surfaced in the Twin
Cities and it's one of the oldest known examples of its kind. In
1910, Lakota Chief Martin White Horse dictated stories about his
community, located on a reservation in South Dakota. After the oral
history, called a winter count, was typed up, the transcript went
into storage. There it lay for decades, forgotten about. The descendants
of the white woman who typed up the document rediscovered it last
summer, and opened up a window to the history of the Lakota and
to their own family.
full slideshow (4 total images) http://images.publicradio.org/content/2009/01/29/20090129_wintercount_33.jpg
Minn. The 32-page narrative is now in the Edina home of 25-year-old
Libby Holden and her family. The document is a simple looking binder
of legal-size paper with red margins on both sides of the sheets.
Some of the cream colored pages are a little tattered at the edges.
Holden said her great-grandmother typed out the oral history nearly
100 years ago.
front page says 'transcript of the pictorial history of the Sioux
nation as kept by the White Horse family. Told by Chief White Horse
of White Horse Station, Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, South
Dakota, on September 8th, 1910'," Holden said.
neatly-typed pages document more than a century of the history and
culture of the Lakota, known to white settlers as the Sioux. It
starts with the year 1790. It's part of a Lakota oral history tradition
known as the winter count.
year is described by a significant event. In the White Horse narrative,
the entry for some years is just a few words.
In the year of stars moving in the sky.
howerver, are longer, such as this passage from 1845.
In this year the Sioux Indians were starving and dying for lack
of food because there had been no buffalos in their country for
a long time. So they took the head of an old buffalo and painted
it red, and placed it in a tepee and worshipped it with much singing
and other things, and asked this buffalo head to send them buffalos
to where they are located inside the boundary line. Their prayers
were successful and many buffalos came to the place where they were
camped, so the Sioux had again plenty of food.
sort of first hand history is what makes the White Horse document
so valuable. But after Holden's great-grandmother typed it out in
1910, it seems to have disappeared.
Holden said her grandmother, who inherited the oral history, never
spoke about it. It's possible she never knew she had the document.
When she died, her possessions were stored at the family's printing
summer, Libby Holden and several other family members began sorting
through the items. Holden says one big musty old trunk was especially
was full. Jewelry, Native American bracelets and beadwork that was
gorgeous," Holden said. "Letters, scarfs, small pictures.
Things were still on hangers and orderly in drawers."
said the trunk also contained the White Horse oral history. She
said it's possible the items were packed away by her great-grandmother
and left untouched by her descendants.
all read it later that night at dinner or afterwards and we said
'Hey, this is really cool,'" Holden said.
In this year there was a big star (presumably a meteor) which came
from the East and went toward the west: this star had a long tail
and made a great noise and it burst in the west, causing an earthquake.
said the discovery of the White Horse narrative pulled the family
back to a place important to its own history, the Cheyenne River
reservation in north central South Dakota. Holden's great grandparents,
George and Florence May Thwing, lived there in the early 1900s.
George was an attorney who served Native Americans and Florence
May is the one who actually typed up the White Horse stories.
a century after she and Chief White Horse sat down with interpreter
Harvey Left Handed Bear, the family sent copies of the oral history
back to the town that bears the chief's name. About 75 people attended
a ceremony in the town of White Horse last December to mark the
rediscovery of the narrative.
was very, very meaningful," said Donna Rae Petersen, a tribal
member who helped organize the event.
this time frame of recession, depression if you will, in this small,
little community on the Moreau River on a very, super-cold, Sunday
afternoon, people came together and it was a good, warm feeling,"
said, like many Indian communities across the nation, the people
of Cheyenne River are becoming more interested in their cultural
were just genuinely happy to have something wonderful like this
come back to their community as far as information goes," Petersen
said. "It's our past coming back to life."
White Horse narrative is a companion piece to a second historical
document the chief left behind, the White Horse winter count pictograph.
It's a series of drawings on a piece of canvas, each drawing represents
one year, starting in 1790 and ending in 1910.
pictograph has been in a Denver museum for several decades. Ray
DeMallie is an anthropology professor at Indiana University who's
researched and written about winter counts. He said to find an oral
history like the White Horse narrative that tells the stories in
a pictograph, is a rare event.
an important and irreplaceable document," DeMallie said.
said the winter count was used by the Lakota as a way to track the
years. There was a designated winter count keeper, who added a new
drawing each year.
winter count would be brought out literally during the dark evenings
of winter and the count keeper would show the pictographs one by
one and tell the stories behind them," DeMallie said. "The
primary audience would be children, bringing them up with a sense
drawings are very simple. Some are easy to interpret, others may
leave the viewer guessing. A drawing on the White Horse winter count
of a human figure covered with red spots tells of a smallpox outbreak
that year. There are at least a couple of dozen winter count pictographs
known to exist in the U.S.
explaining them though are much rarer. There may be only a half
dozen or so of these oral histories, ranging from rough notes to
the more complete narratives like the White Horse document. For
Libby Holden of Edina, the oral history her family found last summer
is a unique contribution to Lakota culture, but it's also important
to her own family history.
always knew that our great-grandfather had strong associations with
the Native American population in South Dakota," Holden said.
"But we never knew that our great-grandmother was also involved
with them. The document sheds a lot of light on her role."
role was most prominent on a cool, late summer day, a Thursday,
in 1910 when Chief White Horse dictated his stories. By that date,
20 years after the Wounded Knee massacre, the days of the Lakota
living on the open prairie were long over. Hemmed in on reservations,
they faced new threats almost yearly. Even as he dictated his stories,
the chief knew that the federal government would begin selling parts
of the Cheyenne River reservation to white homesteaders that very
month. But that loss is not what he focused on in the winter count.
last entry is 121, from the year 1910.
In this year we saw a great comet in the sky. It was called by the
white people Halley's Comet.
think that's a wonderful way for the document to end," Holden
said. "Reading that last entry makes me smile. It makes me
think that there's hope that the culture of the family of White
Horse can be preserved. It can continue to go on and be as constant
as Halley's Comet."
some pages of the cultural history of the White Horse family are
a little tattered at the edges, others are missing completely. Thanks
to a Twin Cities family though, a few of those lost pages have been
to see an interactive graphic of the "winter count" pictograph
and read some of the entries from the historical narrative. You
can also view a full-size, hi-res version of the pictograph to examine