Tracking the 'year of the falling stars'

If you had to chronicle your family or personal history without the benefit of a calendar, chances are that you'd link important events to each other - 'that was the same year we bought the new house,' or 'that happened just after I graduated.'

The Lakota Sioux used just such a system to preserve their own past, using a specific incident to anchor each year in their oral histories, and the time between first winter snowfalls to determine the year's length. The resulting Lakota Winter Counts form the basis of a new online exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution, and you'd be surprised at just how much history can lie behind a single, simple image.

Launched in the year that I had to shovel out from three blizzards in seven days (that's 2005 -February- to the rest of you), Winter Counts holds examples from the world's largest collection of these artifacts (the oldest dating back to the turn of the 18th century), as well as explanatory contributions from the documents' own creators. Background on Lakota history and culture, and more than four hours of video interviews are also available, and the site is posted in both Flash and HTML formats to accommodate varying computer and connection capabilities. (Though the HTML version is significantly less thorough than the Flash.)

Moving past the Splash page, the Flash version of the site opens with a brief animation illustrating an event worthy of winter count designation. (These collections of pictographs, first drawn on animal hides, and later on cloth or paper, could use as their annual icons personal events, raids and battles, famine or disease, astronomical events, or even interactions with the US government.) After depicting the year that 'the stars fell from the sky,' Winter Counts then presents the visitor with three options for further exploration.

View Winter Counts unfolds a sheet of pictographs which spans more than 200 years (1701 to 1905), and correlates the images of ten winter count keepers from different Lakota tribes in to a single timeline. Clicking on any of the pictographs reveals a larger version of the image, along with the Western calendar year of its creation, the name of the Winter Count year, and comments by the calendars' keepers (recorded in the 19th century and transferred "through a series of interpreters and intermediaries"). From this point, visitors can either move along a specific keeper's timeline, or compare depictions of the same year by the various tribes.

(While some years may reveal different events chosen by assorted tribes for their winter count, the year the 'stars fell,' illustrated in the opening animation - probably the Leonid meteor storm of 1833 - was a sufficiently universal phenomenon to span the collection. Such occurrences were of great help to historians trying to synchronize one tribe's calendar with another's, as well as with the Western system.)

Along the top of the viewing frame, tabs offer the chance to return to the Overview of all the pictographs on display, or view each count in its original form - with the ability to zoom, drag, and rotate the artifacts at will. Keyword Search Results, and access to My Winter Counts (a personal collection of images put aside for more extensive study or emailing) are also available through the tabbed interface. To the lower left of the frame, a Topic menu calls up categorized pictographs related to such subjects as People, Places, and Ceremonies.

What Are Winter Counts offers a curatorial background to the practice as well as a series of video segments by six Lakota with personal connections to the winter counts. Who Are The Lakota presents a multi-media history of the tribe (auto-running, but broken into segments to make it easier to zero in on specific information), along with the Environmental makeup of the Lakota territories and an overview of the tribe's Social Structure.

As with What Are The Winter Counts, the historical information is complemented by video segments with contemporary speakers - to offer a modern viewpoint on the winter counts and their continuing relevance. (This more extensive set of videos is also accompanied by a scrolling album of images provided by the speakers - with popup captions that appear on rollover.)

Finally, along the bottom of the browser window, are an Audio Glossary of relevant terms pronounced by a Lakota speaker, and Learning Resources. A Help link at the upper right corner does a very nice job of overlaying useful information onto the page being viewed.

While the original aim of the site was to create a research aid, the final design also makes the collection accessible to the casual visitor, both in terms of navigational simplicity, and in the creation and satisfaction of a non-scholarly curiosity. The attractive layout, multiple cross-linking options available through the winter count interface, and the concrete personal contexts provided by the video interviews contribute to a presentation that can hold the interest of any visitor - and just might spawn a few future scholars down the road.

Lakota Winter Counts: An Online Exhibit can be found at http://www.wintercounts.si.edu.

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