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Standing Rock Timeline - Waniyetu Wowapi (High Dog’s Winter Count, 1798–1912)

Waniyetu Wowapi (winter count) | 1650s to 1862 |
1863 to 1874 | 1875 to 1888 | 1889 to present

Waniyetu Wowapi

Many indigenous groups in the Americas have used mnemonic devices—carvings, beaded belts, or drawings—to reinforce memories of tribal history. One type of record common among native people of the Plains is the pictographic waniyetu wowapi, or winter count, painted on animal hide and later on unbleached muslin. The tribal historian with the counsel of the old men of his tribe, decided on some event that distinguished each year and then drew an appropriate symbol for that year. Every adult could describe the events portrayed and used the calendar-like device as a visual aid when educating the tribe’s children or retelling the tribe’s history at gatherings. The Dakota and Lakota refer to these documents as waiyetu wowapi or “winter counts” because the people counted their years by winters, and so the Dakota year covered portions of two calendar years.

High Dog, a Hunkpapa from the Standing Rock Reservation, kept such a winter count which is now part of the holdings at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. High Dog’s winter count represents the years 1798 to 1912. An earlier version of this count (probably drawn on animal hide) was passed on to High Dog from a previous tribal historian. As was common practice, High Dog then copied the images from the past and learned the meaning of each, thus insuring that his tribe’s history would survive for succeeding generations.

High Dog's winter count
Waniyetu Wowapi: High Dog’s Winter Count.
A traditional timeline of the Dakota and
Lakota people is High Dog’s Winter Count
(35’ by 53’) rendered on unbleached muslin.
(Courtesy of the State Historical Society
of North Dakota, 791)

In many winter counts painted before Native Americans were restricted to reservations, the drawings moved in a spiral from inside out. Most winter counts painted during the reservation years—including High Dog’s—move from outside inward. Some observers have remarked that this change in pattern seems to symbolize the shift in Native American life: from the early days, when the traditions and values were intact, to the reservation period, when a new time was upon the people and the old time was fading away, and the days of traditional Native American life appeared to be numbered.

1. 1798

“THE YEAR FOUR MEN WERE SET APART WITH BLUE FEATHERS.”

Blue feathers were worn by community leaders or elders whom the people greatly respected. Sometimes a child was given a blue feather because some sign at birth indicated superior wisdom. Adults were raised to this rank for distinguished service to the tribe or for outstanding wisdom. Members of this group were expected to admonish others greatly, honor and respect older people, be kind to humans and animals, be generous, and be an example of virtue and goodness to others.

2. 1803

“THE YEAR THE SIOUX CAPTURED SOME SHOD HORSES FROM THE CROWS.”

This was the first time High Dog’s people had seen shoes on horses (horseshoes), although they knew that white men’s horses wore them. Some believed that white men’s horses were trained to strike an enemy with these iron weapons.

3. 1820

“THE YEAR THEY CELEBRATED THE SUN DANCE.”

The Sun Dance is one of the seven sacred rites brought to the Lakota people by the White Buffalo Calf Woman. The time of the Sun Dance is a very holy time when the people come together and offer prayers.

4. 1829

“THE YEAR A MAN LOOKING FOR A BUFFALO WAS FOUND ON THE PRAIRIE SHOT AND FROZEN. HE IS CALLED FROZE ON-THE-PRAIRIE.”

Suicide at this time was practically unknown among the Plains Indians. The man probably shot himself by accident.

5. 1833

“STARS-ALL-MOVING YEAR.”

Falling stars were a cause of great wonder this year.

6. 1834

“THE YEAR THE FIRST WAR BONNET WAS MADE WITH HORNS ON IT.”

The story of this drawing is not clear. The war bonnet was undoubtedly part of a warrior society or medicine society regalia. In any case, a man who wore such a headdress had responsibility to assist his people.

7. 1837

“THE YEAR SMALLPOX CARRIED OFF TO WANAGI YAKONPI (THE OTHER WORLD) MANY OF THE SUFFERING PEOPLE.”

The devastation caused by white men’s diseases including smallpox and measles is often referred to in this winter count.

8. 1856

“THE YEAR GOOD BEAR TORE A WAR BONNET FROM A CROWS HEAD IN A FIGHT.”

Many drawings in the winter count focus on the tribe’s rivalry with the Crows. More than thirty images reflect individual skirmishes or full-blown battles between the two tribes, with the Sioux more often portrayed as the victors. Warfare at this time was pointed at besting an enemy by counting coup on him, or in this case, taking his war bonnet.

9. 1866

“THE YEAR PIZI WAS HELD PRISONER BY GENERAL NELSON MILES.”

Pizi, or Gall, was a great warrior among his people, the Hunkpapa. Many of his people feared Miles killed him. Gall became most famous for his exploits on the battlefield of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, when Custer and his men were defeated.

10. 1883

“THE YEAR WHITE BEARD WENT ON A BUFFALO HUNT WITH THE INDIANS.”

“White Beard” refers to Standing Rock Indian agent James McLaughlin who went on the last big buffalo hunt in North Dakota with the Sioux of Standing Rock Agency. This was a happy, though brief, interlude for the people who were now forced to eat government rations most of the time.

11. 1900

“THE YEAR HAWK SHIELD DIED.”

The last twenty-seven years of High Dog’s winter count (from 1885) is primarily a list of individuals who died. With only four few exceptions (including “The sun turned black and died” and “A star died”), individual deaths are the only events to mark these years. As the Hunkpapa transitioned to the new way of reservation life those people who knew and lived the old ways were memorialized for their wisdom and knowledge of the traditional life, and their contributions to their people were marked as they passed from this world.

Continue to 1650s to 1862...