Education and Lakota Art

There is a long tradition in Lakota society of creating artworks that are aesthetically pleasing and intellectually instructional. An example is the winter count tradition that extends back in time over two hundred years. Only a handful of American Indian tribes kept winter counts.

Lakota winter counts are characterized by a few key principles. One is that a single event was chosen to represent each year. Traditionally, the older men of a tiyospaye chose the event over the winter season through a deliberative process. This process being a collective endeavor is a second key principle. 

Once an event was decided upon, it became the name of that year. The winter count keeper was informed and then he (originally, they were always men, but later women were keepers too) drew a “glyph” to diagrammatically represent the event using graphic shorthand symbols. In addition to drawing the event glyphs, the keeper was also responsible for memorizing the names of all the years on the winter count and the stories of the events.  

A keeper’s winter count served as a method for recording, remembering and recalling events that his tiyospaye chose as important. Keepers used their winter counts as instructional resources for educating tiyospaye citizens. This educational purpose is a third key principle of winter counts. 

Five years ago, CAIRNS initiated an art project that drew on the winter count tradition. It was an educational art exhibit based on one traditional Lakota narrative, “How Lakotas Came Onto This World.” Oglala medicine men shared the narrative with a physician in Pine Ridge Reservation around 1900, who published it in 1917. It is the only widely published version of the emergence narrative. 

We divided the narrative into 16 passages and then invited 16 Lakota artists to participate in the project. Each artist was instructed to create a new artwork tied directly to their assigned passage. The exhibit is “Lakota Emergence” and the artworks can be seen on the CAIRNS website. 

Annually since then, we have curated a subsequent addition to the project. The second exhibit, “The Great Race,” is based on the narrative by James LaPointe about the epic competition that ended disastrously for the racers, yet resulted in the formation of what is now known as the Black Hills. “Tapun Sa Win,” the next exhibit, is based on another narrative by LaPointe about a Lakota woman who married a star and gave birth to a son named Fallen Star. 

Our fourth exhibit shifted focus from traditional narratives to Lakota first-person accounts of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. These day-by-day accounts begin with the assassination of Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890, then follow the trek of Lakotas to Pine Ridge, their apprehension near Porcupine Butte, and their massacre and burial at Wounded Knee. Last year’s exhibit, the fifth in this project series, uses the 17 Articles of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty as its narrative. 

The artworks of these exhibits, and the narratives, are available on the CAIRNS website at Beginning with “The Great Race,” the exhibits also incorporates poems by Oceti Sakowin poets and songs by Oceti Sakowin musicians.

This year’s exhibit, “The Gift,” is based on a traditional narrative that Lone Man shared with Frances Densmore in Standing Rock Reservation, translated by Robert Higheagle and published in 1918. The narrative is about White Buffalo Woman giving the White Buffalo Calf Pipe to the people of the Itazipco nation. At the time of the gift from the Pte Oyate, the Itazipco people were under threat of starvation. 

Artists are turning in their amazing works now. Details of these first paintings and poems are in the “Happenings” section of our website. We really appreciate that the exhibit artists, poets and musicians are continuing their work during this Covid-19 pandemic. They are the keepers of this new educational art exhibit. 

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)