Lakota “Winter Count” Artistry

Pen and ink drawing on light brown paper. Illustration shows two buffalo inside a circle of Native American hunters. Drawn in two dimensions.

Detail from the Lakota winter count. Manuscript Division.

The winter counts created by some Native American peoples chronicle centuries of their history in pictures: battles fought, treaties struck, buffalo hunts, meteor showers, droughts, famines, epidemics. The counts — painted mostly on buffalo hides until the species was hunted to nearextinction in the late 19th century — served as a way for tribes of the Great Plains to document significant events and pass a record of them from generation to generation. Each year, a band’s elders would choose the most important event in the life of the community. The winter count keeper — generally, a trusted elder — would paint a scene on the hide to represent it, adding to the years of images that came before. Each individual image is called a “glyph.”

One such keeper was Battiste Good, born around 1821 under the name Wapostan Gi, or Brown Hat. Good was a member of the Sicangu (or Brulé) Lakota, who at the time inhabited the plains west of the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota and Nebraska. In 1868, Good was present at the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, under which the Lakotas surrendered many thousands of acres of their lands in exchange for the establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation — a large part of what’s now western South Dakota, including the sacred Black Hills.

In 1878, the Rosebud Agency was officially established in South Dakota, and the U.S. government began relocating bands of Sicangus and Oglalas to the new agency. While there, Good copied his winter count into a drawing book given to him by William Corbusier, a U.S. Army surgeon. He introduced Arabic numerals to the count and labeled each event by year — the entry for 1868 shows Good himself shaking hands with Gen. William Harney following the signing of the Laramie treaty. Good died in 1894, and the responsibility of the winter count fell to his son, High Hawk. In 1907, he used watercolor, pen, ink and paper to produce the copy of the Good winter count shown below. High Hawk’s work eventually was donated to the Library’s Manuscript Division, where today it chronicles a history long gone by but not forgotten.

Two colorful lines from the winter count, each depicting a decade with one drawing above each year. Manuscript Division.

5 Comments

  1. stanley shack
    November 10, 2022 at 9:11 am

    TWO children. DNA stated son 25 % indian, daughter 22% . How can i get all the benfits from the government for th em? Yes but i have not yet heaqrd any response? By the way how can you hear that from all the were you are. I speak loud but not that loud? You must have good hearing, I could use that hearing i have a hearing aid. Did you her that?>

  2. Pamela Roper Wagner
    November 10, 2022 at 9:57 am

    Could you provide more information about how High Hawk’s work came to be gifted to the Library of Congress? I see that High Hawk died in 1908 and Rev. Aaron Baker Clark gifted this to the Library in 1909, But how did Clark acquire it from High Hawk? Was he High Hawk’s heir?

    • Neely Tucker
      November 14, 2022 at 12:21 pm

      Hi there,

      Please try our Ask a Librarian service for that and any other queries about High Hawk and the winter count. This link will put you in direct touch with a Manuscript Divivision reference librarian.

      Good luck,
      Neely

  3. Craig L Seasholes
    November 10, 2022 at 11:53 pm

    A fascinating collection and post, but disappointingly concluded with a strange “chronicles a culture lost.” Hardly lost, I’d say. Check this contemporary posting that challenges the image of lost cultures. https://nsew.carnegiemnh.org/lakota-nation-of-the-plains/winter-court/

    • Neely Tucker
      November 14, 2022 at 12:04 pm

      Hi there,

      You raise a good point — during the editing process, I missed a correction to the sentence in question. It has now been updated, and apologies for the mistake. It was on my part, not that of the author.
      Best,
      Neely

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