Lakota Winter Counts: An Online Exhibit
Created and maintained by the National Anthropological Archives and National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Reviewed April—May 2008.
In the book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz argues that only natives make “first order” interpretations of their cultures (p. 15). Contemporary Lakota educators, tribal members, scholars, students, and the general public now have access to a treasure trove of “first order” interpretations with the click of a mouse. The intricate and content-laden Web site Lakota Winter Counts permits visitors to explore in detail winter counts, or pictographic calendars from Teton Sioux. Previously, the winter counts were accessible only to those who visited the Smithsonian Institution’s archives, but Lakota historians' wish for greater access to their archived cultural patrimony led to collaboration with scholars and this online exhibit. Collected during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ten winter counts with their provenance, information about Lakota keepers (community historians), and data on their acquisition, are featured here. At last, a native perspective on two centuries of history is available to the Lakota and a worldwide audience.
Winter counts, pictographic symbols painted on hides or cloth, served as mnemonic devices, recording notable events in Plains Indian history. For example, the pictographs on Lone Dog’s winter count chronicle the outbreak of smallpox in 1801—1802, a successful hunt in 1837—1838, and the arrival of cattle from Texas in 1868—1869. Created during a time of extensive culture change on the Plains, the winter counts record interactions with other tribes and U.S. soldiers; treaties; and even cosmic events. Cross-referencing winter count icons permits comparisons among tribal chronologies.
Organizationally, the site is functional and user friendly and appears in two formats (Flash 6 and hypertext markup language [HTML]). However, the site clearly privileges the Flash 6 version, which allows access to high-resolution images of each winter count, video segments of oral histories, maps, environmental data, and commentary on Lakota culture history. The flexibility of navigation and the ability to sort topics depicted in multiple winter counts, combined with powerful internal search engines, makes the Flash version more desirable.
Another outstanding feature is the site’s comprehensive “Teachers‘ Guide” and accompanying “Learning Resources.” For those who need a basic introduction to the concept of winter counts, the Lakota, or Plains history, the “Teachers’ Guide” is an excellent starting point. The guide includes lesson plans, maps, charts, and a glossary. Written for teachers and students, and organized thematically for grades K—4, 5—8, and 9—10, the materials have value beyond classroom use. Imbedded in the concise and clearly written guide are instructions for using the online exhibit. This short but informative section deconstructs the main sections of the site. Foregrounding those instructions on a pull-down menu or under the help button would have been helpful.
For more details on Lakota winter counts, we recommend The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian (2007), edited by Candace S. Greene and Russell Thornton, as an excellent accompaniment to this outstanding online exhibit.
Danielle Moretti-Langholtz and Buck Woodard
College of William and Mary