High Dog’s Winter Count

High Dog’s Winter Count, North Dakota State Historical Museum

I learned about Winter Counts today – a pictogram made by Native Americans (the one I saw was Sioux) using a single pictograph to capture the past year, measured from the first snowfall of the previous year to the first snowfall of the current year.  A single document, drawn on a hide or linen, preserved the history of a tribe with an pictoral code that describes the tribes history from one generation to the next.  In the Winter Count at the North Dakota State Historical Museum, two years stand out for small pox: a person covered with dots.

The historical notes indicate that the winter count was not the work of a single person. One person was entrusted with it, but the tribal elders consulted together to decide how the previous year should be depicted.  The Winter Count is not only a record of important events (and one that allows some basic quantitative analysis).  It is also a contemplative practice and of the making of shared meaning.

I wonder what it would be like if our monastic communities or our families spent the meditative time of New Year’s Eve deciding on a single symbol to represent the last year. Perhaps we need our own Winter Counts.


  1. I really like the notion of a Winter Count. My mother’s death of Alzeimer’s disease a year and a half ago has made me more mindful of noting the passage of time. As her memories faded, being surrounded by pictures seemed to help her stay happy, and I found myself wishing we had more.

    I wrote about this on my blog (zortslives.blogspot.com/2009/04/blogging-as-memory.html), with the intent of using my blog as a future touchstone for my own memories – but as I look back of the past year, I can see that it hasn’t gone so well. Since our family always gathers for Thanksgiving, I think I’ll try to arrange a time there for us to all sit and talk about the past year, and some make our own sort of Winter Count from that.

    • I am sorry to hear about your loss; Alzheimer’s is so hard for everyone.

      I appreciate your comment, too because it reminded me of the Winter Count again — it is so easy to encounter meaningful ideas and things and then lose track of them in the flow of so many other things. Thank you.

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