BISMARCK, N.D. The first pictograph on the High Dog Winter
Count, carefully drawn a hundred years ago by a hand that still
practiced the old style form, meaning that it wasn't drawn with
the detail of post-Catlin/Bodmer pictography nor the finesse of
ledgergraph art, begins in the top left corner of a cotton banner,
which is followed by more pictographs intentionally wound in a spiral
from the outside in.
Dog Winter Count
The story of the first pictograph is, "Wiyáka thothó
un akícilowanpi," meaning "They sang praises using very blue
feathers." The pictograph recalls a time when the Hunkphápha
honored demonstrations of leadership and good character with a gift
of blue jay feathers. Women were honored with a blue cloud stone,
a blue pendant worn upon their forehead.
High Dog kept the intertwined histories of the Hunkphápha
and Ihánkthuwanna peoples on a winter count painted on cotton.
He resided on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation when the
reservation era began,
Waníyetu Wówapi ki?, the winter count, is a pictographic
memory device that records a tribe's history. Once a year, each
tribe, band, or family would gather and determine how best to remember
the year. One outstanding event was chosen, and the year was named,
then the winter count keeper would render the year in pictograph.
At various times throughout the year, he (and even women too) would
display the winter count at various gatherings or events and share
the history of the people. Sometimes when a new guest arrived, the
occasion inspired the keeper to share the history of that tribe,
band, or family.
The pre-reservation winter counts were executed on brain-tanned
bison robes in circular patterns from the inside-out. Reservation
era winter counts were executed on buckskin or canvas as
bison were nearly obliterated from Mak?óche Waté,
"This Beautiful Country," as the Lakhóta knew it in
patterns which clearly indicated an irrevocable change to a beautiful
way of life.
"'This Beautiful Country,' as
the Lakhóta knew it
The winter count was named after the keeper and when he went
on his journey, the winter count went with him. Sometimes someone
was appointed to keep the winter count tradition, sometimes it was
handed down to a son, grandson, nephew, or other promising individual.
Some women picked up the tradition, as men went off to war
some never to return, were sent off to boarding school, or succumbed
to addiction as a means to cope with a changed world.
The unique relationship each Thíthunwan tribe, band,
or family has with their landscape, their homeland is reflected
in their winter counts. This is information that cannot be discounted.
The Lakhóta year wasn't set in stone. Some Thíthunwan
reckoned the year from first snow fall to first snowfall, others
from last snow to last snow, and even one that determined the year
from high summer to high summer. The year was based on a lunar calendar
which lasted thirteen months. Each moon was named for the natural
history in that cycle (ex. Magákica Aglí Wi,
or "Moon When The Geese Return;" Chanphásapa Wi, or "Moon
Of Ripe Chokecherries").
Some Thíthunwan tribes, bands, and families even refer
to the winter count variously as either "Waníyetu Wówapi,"
(i.e. Hunkphápha) or "Waníyetu Iyáwapi" (Oglála).
This information becomes vital when interpreting the winter
count, as various Lakhóta calendar years overlapped. The
Blue Thunder Winter Count (Ihánkthunwanna) entry for circa
1833 is actually 1833-34 (spring 1833 to spring 1834), and is remembered
as "wicháhpi hinhpáya," or "the year the stars fell."
The High Dog Winter Count (Hunkphápha) entry for circa 1833
is actually 1832-33 (fall 1832 to fall 1833), and is remembered
as "wicháhpi okhícamna," or "the stars moved all around."
or 'the year the stars fell.'"
A well-meaning moderator on a community page of a social media
website a few weeks ago had shared a few entries of the unká
Wakántuya Waníyetu Wówapi, the Dog Raised Up
In High Regard Winter Count (the "High Dog Winter Count), removed
the tribal affiliation from this piece of history, replaced an attribution
of the work, on one of the entries, from "Mahpíya Kinyá?"
(Flying Cloud from Standing Rock) to "Sam Kills Two" (aka "Beads,
Sicángu; keeper of the Big Missouri Winter Count). The interpreters
of the High Dog Winter Count was Rev. Aaron Beede, an Episcopal
missionary on Standing Rock and Flying Cloud (Sihásapa/Ihánkthuwanna).
One might see how the digital scribe in question may have mistook
"Beede" for "Beads," and amended the information as he understood
it. This very assumption, however, only adds to the misrepresentation
of the information. What comes off is an amended copy and paste
job with good intentions. This new interpretation, however, removes
the Hu?kphápha from a landscape that is theirs, and rewrites
Sicá?gu history into a landscape and history that isn't Sicángu.
The winter count tradition was recorded by paternalistic anthropologists
as an art form, disregarding the historical perspective and cultural
understanding, throughout the reservation era. Many winter count
keepers quit recording "the time of nothing" or died, and the tradition
faded to a handful. In the latter half of the twentieth century,
a few historians and anthropologists rediscovered the winter count
and began to recognize that these traditional works have a valuable
contribution to the history of the west.
It is a sad state when there are probably more non-native people
today who know more about the winter count tradition than there
are native people who do.
"The lineage of information is
as important as the information itself."
One of the traditional norms of the Great Plains Indians knowing
where or from whom the traditional stories come. The lineage of
information is as important as the information itself. Just telling
a story, someone may ask, "Where did you hear that one?" or "Who
told you that?" The attribution of the story is always acknowledged.
At the end of sharing a story from one of the winter count entries,
the keeper would conclude by saying, "Keúnkiyapi," "They
There is a need to tell our own stories, from our own sources,
and they should be shared at every opportunity in our communities.
It is also important to make the distinction from which nation,
tribe, band, and family, because that distinction is why our first
nations (even those of the same affiliation) are different from
The last pictograph on the High Dog Winter Count concludes with
the arrival of a comet seen in the sky above the vast prairie steppe.
It reads, "Wicánpi wan ilé ú kin," meaning,
"A burning star came this way." There were six comets visible to
the naked eye that year, but only one meant something special to
the Hunkphápha and Ihánkthuwanna peoples on Standing
Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He
is a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, working
on a graduate degree in history. Dakota has written for various
journals and magazines, and a recent paper of his appears in Karl
Skarstein's "The War With The Sioux," 2015, for a free e-copy visit
Digital Press. He occasionally maintains the history blog The