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Lakota “Winter Count” Artistry

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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.

Comments (17)

  1. 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. 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?

    • 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,

    • 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.

  3. Hi Neely,
    I posted comment no. 2 above, asking about the provenance of the Winter Count, namely, how High Hawk’s creation came to be considered the possession of Rev. Aaron Baker Clark, to the extent that the Library of Congress considered this precious Lakota artifact to be in his gift. I am now following up. I was troubled that you referred me to the Ask a Librarian service rather than answering my question in this public venue. I have been considering how I should respond. And then, while I was thinking about it, a curator from another museum contacted me personally to say that the highest level curators at the Library of Congress should have responded to my question publicly. The provenance of the Winter Count is of ethical significance. At this time, museums are being challenged to repatriate such artifacts, often acquired through colonial donors who had no legitimate rights in the artifact. So, given this context, please answer my question in this public venue. Even if the Library is uncertain of the artifact’s rights and provenance, transparency on this topic would be respectful—and respected. Thank you.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for writing again. I’m sorry you read the referral to a reference Librarian in your field of inquiry as “troubling” and somehow not “transparent” It’s actually just the opposite. The Library is home to nearly 200 million items covering the globe over an expanse of more than 4,000 years.The Ask a Librarian online service puts readers and researchers in touch with the same subject-matter-experts who curate, preserve and detail these items. They are the ones who help researchers on site in reading rooms and answer questions to the best the historical record allows. Their response are entirely for public consumption. The Library’s blogs, by contrast, are for general audience and reach millions of readers each year. In the interest of accuracy, it is standard practice to refer readers with specific questions to this service.

      Still, I’ll ask your question for you and see if I can find out more.


  4. Hi Neely,
    Thank you for looking into this for me and publishing your findings in this public venue. I am familiar with your Ask-a-Librarian service and have used it, but if I posed this question via that service, it would not be published in this blog, so not made public.

    • I’ve sent a message to the relevant staff and am awaiting their response. But, to be clear, there is no difference in transparency between you posting/publishing/tweeting/etc the response you receive via the Ask A Librarian service, and me posting the response from the same staff that I receive here. The question goes to exactly the same people.


  5. Neely, I beg to differ. A post made directly by a member of Library of Congress staff to a blog published by the Library of Congress has authority that a comment made by a member of the public could never have, even if the comment contained information obtained from the Ask-a-Librarian service. Nor did you suggest in your original response that I should post as a comment any information I obtained from the service. You simply referred me to the service. I would have expected to see the author of the original post revise this post to include this information, just as the language referring to “lost culture” was revised in a change you say was overlooked in the editing process. Its provenance and ownership is essential information to the artifact’s story that should be fully addressed in the original post, especially in the context of the current discussion among museums of repatriation of such artifacts.

    • Hi (again),

      I’m going to post the answer the staff provides and then we’ll move along. But your presupposition is again incorrect in suggesting that LOC historians provide “more authoritative” answers to the communications office than they do to the general public, or that a blog post carries more authority than anything “members of the public” write about materials in our collections. Every day, “members of the public” use LOC reference librarians to direct them to material and then write peer-reviewed authoritative papers, prize-winning & best-selling histories, ethnographic studies, scientific research, fiction and so on with that material.

  6. The Sicangu Lakota (Brule) Winter Count (Waniyetu Wowapi) created by Wapostangi (Brown Hat, aka Battiste Good) and his son, High Hawk, featured in this blog is a highly treasured and respected artistic work and multi-generational cultural record preserved at the Library of Congress, honoring Lakota/Brule/Sioux history and culture and its very deep, complex, and storied roots. It is one of many Winter counts from different Plains Indians traditions extant in U.S. repositories and museums. These provide an important and valued counter-vision regarding settler colonialism and historical experience from Native American/Plains Indians perspectives, including documentation of violence of encounter and the forced partitioning, removal and subjection to relocation and missionary influence, as well as encounter-induced disease, and important instances in tribal history and memory, from key hunts to meteorological occurrences. Winter Counts created by keepers, or community-selected Native historians, reflect continuation and survivance and the ongoing life and vibrancy of Native cultures and interpretations in storytelling today. They serve as the basis of oral tradition, dissemination, and sharing. The Good/High Hawk Winter Count reflects the Library’s commitment to inclusion of Indigenous voices, viewpoints, and creative works by Native Americans in its collection, be they created by Native poets, visual artists, singers, writers, historians, cultural representatives, or literary scholars. These accounts exist in the collections for study in combination with, and sometimes as a contrary voice to, accounts about Native Americans expressed in western texts and collected by non-Native travelers, missionaries, military members, anthropologists and ethnographers.

    The Winter Count preserved at the Library is a syncretic item that incorporates both Native and European temporalities. It is one version that High Hawk created on paper in collaboration with his father or as a continuation of his father’s account. These and others reside in various repositories in the United States, including at the Smithsonian, the Sioux Indian Museum, and the Library, where they are studied, discussed, and appreciated, including by Native American scholars and students. The highlighting of the Winter Count is part of knowledge repatriation that is an ongoing commitment of the Library as a public institution in service to sovereign Tribal nations and the United States as a whole. The copy of the Winter Count held at the Library came through an Episcopal missionary/Rosebud Indian Reservation connection, as a single-item gift from Rev. Aaron Baker Clark in 1909. The personal papers of Aaron Baker Clark and his wife Sarah Booth Clark are at Yale. You may enjoy interpretive educational materials provided through You Tube featuring Candace Green and Emil Her Many Horses of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, and other educational outreach and scholarly resources available about Winter Counts online, including those created by Native speakers and educators.

    • For those interested: Barbara Bair is the Library’s reference librarian/curator overseeing the Lakota Winter Count item.

      Thanks for your time, Barbara!

  7. Thank you for your valuable addition to the original post, Barbara.

  8. To follow up, I am assuming from Barbara Blair’s interesting and informative post about Winter Counts, that the Library of Congress does not actually have an answer to my specific question about how Reverend Clark acquired the Winter Count that he gifted to the Library in 1909 and that High Hawk created. I asked specifically whether High Hawk bequeathed it to Clark. Or, to add to my original query, did he acquire it by purchase or gift? Is it indeed the case that the Library does not know how Clark came to possess this Winter Count? Would the Library suggest contacting Yale University library to ask if this information is found in the Clark family papers? Or does the Library already know that no information exists in the Clarks’ on how Clark came to have it? That is the specific information I am asking about. Thank you.

    • Please follow up with Library stuff for further inquiry; this forum is a general-interest blog, not a platform for detailed research on any particular topic.

  9. I am an artist and appreciate the native art.

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