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.

Harjo, Library Honored by Native American Tribal Association

The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums has presented one of its most significant awards to the Library and former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo for “Living Nations, Living Words,” Harjo’s signature project during her 2019 to 2022 term. Harjo, the first Native American to hold the nation’s poet laureate position, was honored with […]

Indigenous Cultures at the Library: Kislak Family Foundation Gives $10 Million for New Gallery

The Kislak Family Foundation is donating $10 million to create a new exhibition at the Library that will share a fuller history of the early Americas, featuring the Jay I. Kislak Collection of artifacts, paintings, maps, rare books and documents, the Library announced today. The new Kislak Gallery will be part of a reimagined visitor […]

A Fond Farewell to John Hessler, LOC Polymath

Every institution has its institutions, and one of the Library’s is John Hessler, who will retire from the Geography and Map Division at the end of this month. He holds many titles, official and unofficial. One of the official ones is curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the […]

Connecting Andean Voices and Heritages

This is a guest post by Giselle Aviles, a reference librarian in the Hispanic Reading Room of the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division. The Hispanic Reading Room has a new research guide, Interconnecting Worlds: Weaving Community Narratives, Andean Histories & the Library’s Collections. This guide, with resources in English, Spanish and Quechua, facilitates research […]

Trailblazing American Women on Quarters

This is a guest post by Maria Peña, a public relations strategist in the Library’s Office of Communications. Maya Angelou broke ground as a multifaceted author, poet, actress, recording artist and civil rights activist, while Adelina “Nina” Otero-Warren left an indelible mark in New Mexico’s suffrage movement. This year, both are among five trailblazing women […]

Researcher Stories: Armand Lione and the Search for Native American History in D.C.

American Indians walked the land where the nation’s capital city now stands long before Europeans arrived. Local historian Armand Lione shares that history when he talks about his research, much of which is conducted at the Library of Congress.

Maya Blue and the Vessels of the Diving Gods

The ceramics created by ancient Maya potters make for some of the most vibrantly colored objects that survive in the archaeological record of the Americas. John Hessler, curator of the Library’s Kislak collection, explains how their distinctive blue color has survived for centuries.