There Are 120 Years of Lakota History on This Calendar

The visual recording of life in the nation sheds light on a vanished culture

From the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Photograph by Travis Rathbone

The old man Poolaw gave me my Indian name, Tsoai-talee (Rock tree boy), when I was an infant. Poolaw was a notable figure in the Kiowa tribe, an arrow maker and a calendar keeper. He died soon after I was born, and I regret that I did not come to know him. Nonetheless I feel close to him, for I have being in the name he gave me.

Tsoai, the rock tree, is what the Kiowas call Devils Tower, the monolithic outcropping in the shape of a tree stump, rising from the plains on the edge of the Black Hills in Wyoming. Tsoai is a principal landmark on the old migration route of the Kiowas from the Yellowstone River to the Southern Plains. According to Kiowa legend, it is the tree that carried seven sisters into the heavens where they became the stars of the Big Dipper. The story links the Kiowas forever to the stars, to relatives in the night sky. 

Some years later my father and I went to the house where Poolaw had lived. In a bureau drawer in Poolaw’s bedroom, preserved by his family, were two items of interest—a human bone and a ledger book. Of the former my father said, “This is the forearm of a man named Two Whistles. I know nothing more about it.” Who was Two Whistles, I wondered, and how did the bone come into Poolaw’s possession? I encountered unrecorded history, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

The other item was a pictographic calendar begun by an unknown person and carried on by Poolaw. It covers just more than 100 years from 1830 on. Each year is represented by two entries, one for summer and one for winter, presumably the most important events of the year. Here I found history recorded. This was not history as I had encountered it before, but it was nonetheless a valid idea of history, reduced to an essential concept, composed in the language of imagery. Pictographic calendars, originally painted on hides, were kept by two tribes in particular, the Kiowa and the Sioux, or Lakota. They have come to be known as “Winter Counts”—so called because each year was believed to commence with the first snowfall. 

In 1998, inside a long-unopened trunk, a winter count was discovered in Ontario, California. Today it is one of the treasures in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The “Rosebud Winter Count” (for the Sioux reservation in South Dakota where it likely was collected) is a piece of muslin, 6912 by 35 inches, on which is drawn a pictographic calendar. There are 136 pictographs, mostly in black ink embellished with colored washes. The images—marking events documented elsewhere (an entry for 1833-34, “the year the stars fell,” refers to the Leonid meteor shower of 1833) or particular to the tribe (1865-66 was the year “Four Crows stealing horses were killed”)—appear to extend from 1752 to 1887. 

One can imagine the unidentified artist setting his task. The questions he faces on the blank sheet of muslin are much deeper than what happened when. “Who am I?” he asks, “and who are my people? Where did we come from? What happened to us to make us who we are? What have been the markers of our being—joys and sorrow, losses and gains, triumphs and defeats? It is my will to show a part of our path from the time of origin to the present. It is in the power of my mind and my hand. It is appropriate that I should be the keeper of the story.” The artist’s mission is no less than the identification of his tribe in time and space.

What interests me most about the winter counts is their relation to language, to expression verbal and visual—language in the abstract. It is a crucial link between the oral and written traditions, not unlike the Rosetta stone, the Dead Sea scrolls, the walls of Lascaux. It is reflection and enigma, history and myth. Like the bone of Two Whistles, it is both a story and a story to be told, of Man’s quest to know himself, composed in the language of imagery.