In the last couple days, Dakota Goodhouse (his blog, which you’ll want to visit, linked here) and I have been hanging out in downtown Fargo, as he’s in town to expand on the Native tradition of winter counts. He crashed at my place for a couple nights, and last night we had dinner over here after his short talk at the Spirit Room (this was organized and funded through a collaboration between the Fargo-West Fargo Public Schools Indian Education program and the North Dakota Humanities Council). Dakota and I chatted more about winter counts, and about future prospects of scholarly interest and inquiry.
I’m thinking that winter counts, and the history of them, have become popular enough that I don’t really need to explain them. But just in case, a winter count is an annual pictograph painted onto the larger medium of buffalo or elk hides. In the latter part of the 19th century, they were painted onto canvas. These counts provided the owner or memory group with a traceable past, the pictograph often representative of a successful high-point of that year.
While Dakota explained the winter counts to the group at the Spirit Room last night, he pointed to one of his buffalo hides while expanding on how he saw something different in that particular account. This particular account is a symmetrical series of triangles running around the circumference of a circle. Some years ago, Dakota said he used to think of this as a war bonnet laid out on the floor. Today, though, he said it also looks like the plains indigene narrative attached to what we call “sun dogs.” One of the stories that he knows is that the sun dogs are thought more of as camp fires next to the sun.
These various stories got me thinking at least two related things that are slightly polemical. The first is something we deal with every now and then, and that’s one-dimensional thinkers who sometimes say, “Well, cultures with oral traditions don’t have a history, or if they do it’s impossible to trace.” This is always a fun question to respond to, but last night I was thinking more-so of how a person who reads a novel, or a good piece of history, are likely to walk away with a different perception about the same piece of scholarship within the span of two or more readings.
This is similar to the winter count. Dakota explained the difference in how one individual, when looking at the bison robe laid out, might see a native headdress while another might see sun dogs, parhelia, or what the Dakota call wi’aceti, this roughly translated and defined as “when the sun makes fires.” Dakota added that the winters on the northern Great Plains are so cold that the sun requires camp fires to keep it warm.
From here on out I decided to abandon the sun dog phrase and replace it with wi’aceti (pronounced, roughly, “we-ah-che-tee”). If anyone wants to join me on the northern Great Plains in this effort, by all means. If we hear someone say “sun dog,” please feel free to add wi’aceti to that, and with explanation.
Also, Dakota contributed heavily to a piece of winter count scholarship that yo might be interested, chapter 4 of Candace Greene and Russell Thornton, The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2007).