What is a winter count?
Traditionally, Plains Indian peoples used winter counts to document the events of past years. Along with other community leaders, a count keeper from the community would choose an event that represented that year (often defined as first snowfall to first snowfall) and draw an image on a hide, adding to it in subsequent years in an outward, clockwise spiral pattern. The Medicine Bear winter count at the Hood Museum of Art uniquely begins with the first glyph in the top left corner and spirals inward, ending in the center. These images would be used to remember oral histories associated with each year, a visual reference for that community in the telling of their stories.
The event recorded was not necessarily the most important one of the year, but was widely recognized within the community. In later years, winter counts were drawn more often on pieces of cotton muslin or paper instead of hide.
Where is this winter count from?
The Medicine Bear winter count at the Hood Museum of Art is from a community of Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna, known as Yanktonai, led by a headman called Medicine Bear who was among the signers of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. It was collected by Eugene D. Mossman, who was an Indian Agent at the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota, from July 1, 1921, to June 30, 1933. From there, it passed into private collections and was purchased by the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College for educational purposes. It is made of cotton muslin and spans about 2 1/2 feet tall by 3 1/2 feet wide. Winter counts often overlap with each other, either because there are multiple copies or because communities shared common experiences. The Medicine Bear winter count appears to be associated with the Blue Thunder winter count (Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna) at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the High Dog winter count (attributed to Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna and Huŋkphápȟa) at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the Chandler-Pohrt Winter Count at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the John K. Bear winter count (Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna).
Where can I learn about other winter counts?
The North Dakota Studies Project features another winter count produced from the Standing Rock community, kept by High Dog, a Hunkpapa Lakota. This winter count covers many of the same years as Medicine Bear’s, beginning in 1798 and ending in 1912.
If you’re interested in learning more about winter counts, the book The Year the Stars Fell, edited by Candace S. Green and Russell Thornton, has more information on the winter counts featured in the Smithsonian’s online exhibition.