Calendars Then and Now

26 Apr 2021

With the appearance of a full moon this evening, the Lakotan spring season reached its midpoint. Spring consists of two months, each of which is aligned with the period from one full moon to the next. 

The first month of spring is Magaksicha Agli Wi, the Ducks Return Moon. It began this year with the full moon on March 28. The second spring month is Canwapto Wi, the Green Leaves Moon, which began with this evening's full moon. 

Wetu, the spring season, begins the Lakotan year. Summer is bloketu, and consists of four months, while fall, ptanyetu, has only two months. The Lakotan year ends with waniyetu, the winter season. The number of full moons in this season varies between four and five, which allows for the difference between lunar years (about 354 days) and solar years (approximately 365 days) to be accounted for periodically. Waniyetu refers to both the winter season and the Lakotan year. 

There was no universal Lakotan calendar. Most of the full moons had multiple possible names. From them, a given community would select one that fit the environmental conditions of the place where they were when the moon was full. Therefore, there was not a fixed sequence of month names. 

Lakotan years were named, as opposed to numbered, and those names too were not universal. Each community could name its year based on an event experienced by some or all of its denizens since the previous spring. Long ago, these events were recorded by a simple small diagram that was drawn onto a tanned hide. Later, they were drawn onto cloth and paper. Every spring, a new drawing was added in a sequence determined by a calendar's keeper. These calendars were called waniyetu iyawapi, winter counts. Most of the Lakota winter counts that were collected in the 1900s contained over 100 drawings; the earliest of them recorded events from the 1700s. 

Lakotan years were named for important events that had happened over the preceding four seasons, instead of being numbered in a sequence that begins with an arbitrary event in the far distant past. Therefore, a Lakotan's age was related to an important event, not to a number. Of course, if a Lakotan wished, she could count back from a given year and determine her age in number of years. She could probably name the season she was born, and maybe the name of a month within that season, but that was as precise as she could be in identifying her birth date. 

Lakotan time-keeping, at least with respect to calendars, did not involve the numbering or counting of days. Even though the number of days between full moons is constant, they were not numbered.  The concept of weeks was also unknown and unnecessary, as were the concepts of decades and centuries. A period of time greater than a year that Lakotans did recognize was wichoichage, a generation, defined as the lifespan of an individual—which once again is an imprecise period of time when compared to universal calendars.

Some American Indian societies and civilizations, such as Aztec, Mayan, Inca and Olmec, did develop universally precise calendars; but Lakotans and the overwhelming majority of other American Indian peoples did not. They had no need to do so. But if such a need had arisen, they almost certainly would have developed a precision calendar. 

Precise calendars are needed when a society becomes sedentary, develops surplus food production, imposes taxes, and regulates religious observances tied to the sun instead of the moon. One hundred and fifty-three years ago, Lakotans and the entire Oceti Sakowin Confederacy were on the cusp of creating such a society. Between April 29 and November 6, 1868, Lakotan, Nakotan and Dakotan representatives signed a treaty that established their new country, which consisted of a reservation, an unceded territory, and a hunting ground. 

This new country encompassed an area equivalent to that of Spain today. In its center was Paha Sapa, the Black Hills. Its major waterways included portions of the Yellowstone, Missouri and Platte Rivers. It contained vast quantities of productive agricultural lands and other natural resources. It was the homeland of a newly-recognized nation, one that was uniquely prepared to succeed in realizing its destiny. 

But before a name for it could be ascribed, the United States reneged on its solemn word and took back about three-fourths of the land, including the Black Hills. Nine years—that was the lifespan of the new country. It died the year recorded in many Oglala winter counts as Crazy Horse was Killed, and in the Gregorian calendar as 1877.

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