Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

Our Winter Count – Inspiration For Educators From the Lakota Sioux

By Todd R. Nelson

winter count hide

Lone Dog Winter Count, 1800-1870. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

If you drew last year’s highlights on an animal hide, like the Lakota Sioux, what would they look like? They probably didn’t come in a shopping cart.

We have entered the season of counts. On the one hand, it is the count of the Advent calendar; on the other, the soulless countdown of spending days until Christmas, and the turn of the calendar year at New Year’s. We are preoccupied with enumerating the passage of time, expense, and our accomplishments connected mostly to consumption and the year’s impending expiration. Another fiscal year draws to an end, and we prepare for the reckoning with the tax man—the annual bean count.

Thanksgiving asks us, “How have we been fortunate?” and New Year’s Day, “How will I make good fortune in the future?” If there is sincerity and humility attached, they are questions that also draw us out of ourselves to think of others: How have I, or how will I, help others share in the benefits that abound?

At my elementary school one year, we diverted attention to a different count. The Lakota Sioux measured the year from first snowfall to first snowfall with what they called the “winter count.” They marked the passing of time and collected the important events of a year as a pictograph drawn on an animal hide. Here were the crucial moments in tribal life: “The Year the Stars Fell” (the Leonid meteor showers of 1833), or “The Winter of Compassion” (1944, the year of the founding of The National Congress of American Indians). Their counts distilled the meaning of events, threading singular moments into a tapestry that becomes the history of the tribe, synchronizing time and meaning.

“What would the winter count for our school look like?” I asked my students. The fourth grade class contemplated their own winter count after we looked at a Lakota example.

Some sports fan felt it would be remembered as the year of the soccer World Cup. One boy knew right away that it would always be the year of “my baby sister.” For Charlotte, it would be the arrival of Amber, her new cat. For other kids, the pictograph would show making igloos, or skiing for the first time, or the start of our recycling program. Others cited natural disasters, and disaster relief; continuing warfare, and glimmers of peace.

My own list cited the year of Rosa Parks lying in state in the nation’s capitol and a local fisherman winning a MacArthur grant for studying local fisheries—unexpected moments when wonders seemed natural.

As winter approaches, I’d like this to be a season in which we count a different sense of annual accomplishment, a deeper sense of capital, of collective benefit, and progress. The measure of growth in compassion, for instance, is rarely counted or enumerated—it can’t be tallied as easily as time and money—but it should be. It’s a better measure of the stature of a people. I wonder if I could prepare a Form 1040 enumerating my cultural capital? It would be a more complete measure of GNP.

Our school “tribe” is certainly defined by more than professional sports victories, the advent of little sisters, or nature’s turmoil. Nonetheless, it’s still good to add up this winter’s key moments because they affirm that we have a voice in determining what will be remembered in the next winter count. Are we working toward another “Winter that Strengthened our Voices?” Will this be a “Winter of Shelter,” to cite two Lakota counts? It will be, if we look outward, forward, past the urge to refill our shopping carts, and lend a hand.

View the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History online exhibit “Lakota Winter Counts” in flash (audio and video) or html

Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.



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This entry was posted on Friday, November 1st, 2013 and is filed under *ISSUES, November 2013, Todd Nelson. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Teachers.Net Gazette Vol.10 No.11 November 2013

Harry & Rosemary Wong: Effective Teaching
The Most Misunderstood Word
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Our Winter Count - Inspiration For Educators From the Lakota Sioux
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