The Indians’ Own Story


Among the nine hundred Indians, mainly Oglala Sioux, who surrendered to the US Army at Camp Robinson in Nebraska in early May 1877 was an eighty-four-year-old man who served as a tribal historian. His name is lost but his existence is preserved in a letter written by the post commander, Colonel Luther P. Bradley, to his wife. A few weeks after the surrender, Bradley reported, the historian rode over to Camp Robinson on his pony to visit. “I went outside the gate to shake hands with him,” Bradley wrote.

He was very chatty and thanked me for coming out to see him, saying he was an old man and couldn’t walk very well. He carried a stick about six feet long covered with notches, thousands of them. I asked him what it was and he said it was the history of the world from the beginning, handed down by his fathers. Some day he is coming in to tell me the story and I’ll write you about it.

I have tried to puzzle out the historian’s name but without success. The surrendering Indians had all come in with Crazy Horse and the following day, on May 7, 1877, they were counted and many of their names—probably including the historian’s—were recorded in an Army ledger book. Sometime after the end of the Indian wars this register disappeared into private hands but it resurfaced in the late 1980s and was published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1994.1 With the reappearance of the book all those people, many of them unknown for a century, suddenly re-entered the historical record. Unfortunately, no ages had been recorded along with the 217 names of heads of families in the Crazy Horse band, and Bradley offers no other fact to help identify their historian.

Things written down are the evidence of choice for historians in the classic tradition of Western Europeans. Francis Parkman, writing in the year Crazy Horse surrendered, dismissed “Indian traditions of historical events [as] almost worthless.” But paper records, too, are a sometime thing—gone today, here tomorrow, like a letter from Bradley to his mother which sold at auction a year ago. The letter, written on September 8, 1877, only three days after Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers under Bradley’s command, includes several details about the killing recorded nowhere else. The historian’s stick, like Bradley’s letter to his mother, may also be awaiting discovery—on a collector’s wall, or stored away in the basement of a museum, or conceivably still in the possession of some old traditional living on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, where most of the people who surrendered with Crazy Horse ended up, and their descendants still live.

The Oglala history stick described by Colonel Bradley was not unique. Several similar sticks maintained by other Indian peoples are cited by the scholar Peter Nabokov in his recent study, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. Nabokov, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is the author of many books on Indian subjects, including Indian Running, Native American Architecture (with Robert Easton), and Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior, based on notes and interviews recorded by the ethnographer William Wildschutt in the 1920s. A Forest of Time is a virtual compendium of the “Indian traditions” Parkman distrusted most—stories and songs of the long ago filled with spirits, talking animals, changelings, shamans, voices in the sky, rocks and trees, old women with knowledge of the use of magical herbs, trickster coyotes, sacred mountains, trees, rivers, springs, and holes in the ground. It wasn’t just Parkman who despaired of making historical sense out of all this stuff; one of the first and greatest of the plains anthropologists, Robert Lowie, felt the same way, declaring in 1915, “I cannot attach to oral traditions any historical value whatsoever under any conditions whatsoever.”

Nabokov refuses to join in this grudging refusal to let Indians participate in telling their own history. Skirting argument about what qualifies as a “true” statement about the past, A Forest of Time sticks to more accessible questions—what do Indians think about the past, how do they record what they believe about the past, and what solace or insight do they derive from having a past? In exploring these matters Nabokov cites hundreds of academic papers about scores of American Indian cultures from just about every region of the United States and Canada. Among them are the Iroquois of New York, who kept a record of their chiefs carved into canes which could still be “read” by Iroquois in the nineteenth century. The Pima Indians of Arizona kept calendar sticks, closer in nature, I believe, to the stick of Colonel Bradley’s Oglala historian. The Arikara of the upper Missouri preserved into the early decades of the twentieth century a bundle of thirty-four sticks which the anthropologist Melvin R. Gilmore described as “The Arikara Book of Genesis.” Arranged into six piles around a fire, an Arikara spiritual leader named Four Rings used them to explain the origins of his people—an Arikara “history of the world from the beginning.”

The Iroquois canes and the Arikara “book” represent two fundamental but very different kinds of Indian history-keeping. The first is a record of people and events of the kind literate peoples consign to paper, things like the landing of the Mayflower or the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the killing of seven Oglala Wagluhe warriors who had gone out to steal horses from the Crows in 1875. The second is a record, in spirit similar to the Judeo-Christian Book of Genesis, of stories reaching into the deep past about first things which can be imagined but not proved. Indeed, the very notion of evidence and proof is alien to the spirit of origin stories.

Nabokov tells of an encounter in the early 1970s between an old Navajo and anthropologists who wanted to know what he thought about current theories that human beings first crossed into the Western Hemisphere from Siberia. The Navajo brushed that notion aside. “Maybe some other guys came over like that, but us Navajos came a different way.” Oh? How was that? As described by Nabokov the old Navajo’s answer came in fits and starts. Mysterious insects “won this world for us, won this land here, the reservation” by making their way to the surface of the world from below. More particularly the Nav-ajo themselves were born from white corn kernels af-ter conversation with the sun. Further details were not revealed.

It was evident to Nabokov, reading a transcript of the interview, that the old Navajo considered these matters barely appropriate for discussion with a white man—they were likely to be misunderstood, undervalued, or even somehow “lost.” So he quit talking.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to know how men “really” first made their way from the Old World to the New—over the Beringia land bridge, or on rafts from Polynesia, all at once or in succeeding waves, or in some manner at some time still unimagined. And of course it would be nice to know what “really” happened to the Anasazi of the Southwest—did a severe drought overwhelm the irrigation system, or did warlike raiders find a way to climb the cliffs and walls? Why did the mound-builders build their mounds and why did they stop? What happened to the original horses and mammoths of North America; were they hunted to extinction? And if so by whom, how, when? In the 1930s the Naskapi of Labrador told the anthropologist William D. Strong that the trickster hero of their stories was a great hunter who killed huge beasts with trunks and tusks.

These stories may represent a cultural memory of killing mammoths ten thousand or more years ago. The Delaware Walum Olum, a bundle of red sticks like the Arikara Book of Genesis, was read in the 1820s as describing an ancient journey of arrival crossing the ice. Did the Delaware mean to record a passage from Siberia? Who knows? Nabokov suggests that we stick with what we do or can know, which is simultaneously much and little. He cites an anthropologist who interviewed remnants of the New England tribes and discovered that despite loss of language and the intervening centuries, the stories they told him were eerily similar to accounts first put down on paper in the 1600s and 1700s. Such anecdotes prove nothing but suggest much—the strange persistence of cultural memory rooted in an actual past, but twisted and colored by time. Nabokov dislikes conceiving the Indian stories as a kind of Rosetta Stone, holding the secret of what really happened if we could only identify the key. What interests him instead is the vast body of Indian myth, story, and legend casting flashes backward but rooted now in the present, and telling us most importantly how these storytelling peoples think of themselves as actors in events still unfolding.

Identity and its shifting facets are the chief subject of A Forest of Time. Once scholars push back even a few years beyond first contact with Westerners the Indian world is suddenly depeopled. Actual chiefs, prophets, and orators, about whom recognizably real stories can be told, are replaced by figures hazy in time and outline—once there was a wise man, a brave man, a wily hunter…. These stories taken as a whole embody the effort of a people to define, explain, amuse, and encourage themselves. It is a little like reading Italo Calvino’s Italian Folk Tales, with its endless variations on the eternal theme: once there was a rich prince who lived on the hill, and a peasant girl, beautiful but poor, who was lost in the forest…. Was there really such a prince, or a hundred of them? Maybe, maybe not. But it is certain that Italian peasants, laboring in the shadow of a castle on a hill, dreamed of being recognized, lifted up, freed from poverty.

What the old stories tell us is that Indian peoples lived on the edge, were dependent on animals and weather, respected cunning as much as courage, and at night around the fire invented a literature half about coping and half about mysteries, with lots of jokes. None of it quite explains why the Siouan-speaking peoples migrated from the Carolinas to the Great Lakes but it handsomely demonstrates the resilience of people who have experienced every kind of hardship, tragedy, and narrow escape known to man in his primitive state. “What can a nation that has not letters tell us of its origins?” asked Samuel Johnson, quoted by Nabokov. According to Nabokov, they tell us their virtues, and how they won them. It’s a good answer and in my opinion Johnson would have grumbled but accepted it.

But something still nags: Who were these people really? What happened to them really? To what extent do Indians tell stories about the past because they prefer stories? To what extent because they lack letters? When Nabokov set out with the anthropologist Lawrence Loendorf to write a history of the Indian peoples who once lived on what is known as the Yellowstone plateau, he discovered that there was no exclusively “Indian history” of the place or the things that happened there. Some of the Indian peoples who hunted or traveled there had left an oral literature, but it wasn’t about Yellowstone in particular, and the one Indian group that had really lived there had practically disappeared following their expulsion when the park was created in 1872.

When Nabokov and Loendorf began writing Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park, their purpose was to reverse this ethnic cleansing of the park’s history, and their principal recourse was to material of the classic sort used to write history by white scholars of European descent. The park’s only permanent residents in recent times had been a Shoshonean-speaking people called Sheep Eaters—a literal translation of the name they used for themselves, Tukudika. “Few American Indian groups have been burdened with as many demeaning and dismissive descriptions by non-Indian writers as have the Sheep Eaters of the greater Yellowstone region,” Nabokov and Loendorf write. “Even the California Indians, vilified by the pejorative term ‘Diggers,’ did not have it as bad….”

Compelled to rely on the available evidence from archaeology, material culture, and what can be sifted from nineteenth-century travelers’ tales, many tendentious or hostile, Nabokov and Loendorf manage only the sort of ethno-portrait they admire least—a “snapshot” and “trait list” giving an “essentialized” version of Tukudika culture. The problem is not their intent but the lack of evidence; with the exception of field notes collected by the Swedish historian of religion Ake Hultkrantz from a handful of survivors in the 1940s and 1950s, the Tukudika carried their history to the grave.

It is impossible to say with confidence what the Tukudika would have chosen to record, given a chance, but other Indian peoples left no doubt that their first priority was a readable record of actual people and actual events. This should occasion no surprise; loss of memory triggers panic in every culture. The inevitable response is to tell the young and urge them to remember. Nabokov cites the case of Alfred Bowers, who did field work in the 1930s among the Hidatsa, a town-dwelling people of the upper Missouri who were hit particularly hard by the smallpox epidemics of a century earlier. The Hidatsa told Bowers that they had arrived on a flaming arrow plunging down from the heavens and the spot where it landed—that very spot and no other—was where they lived. With Nabokov’s help Bowers in 1983 pointed out to archaeologists the place Hidatsa elders had suggested to him was the place fifty years earlier. Sure enough, as Nabokov and Bowers watched, the archaeologists dug out “rotten chunks of buried house posts,” which turned out to be “the oldest radiocarbon-dated Plains Indian Village culture site in the entire middle Missouri region.”

Now it was always a given that the Hidatsa had to live somewhere, but this wasn’t just somewhere—it was the actual, exact spot. It was like the difference between just any Civil War knife and spoon, and the knife and spoon your great-grandfather carried at Chickamauga. The one is interesting, the other is sacred—offering the kind of connection the Hidatsa themselves wanted, a tethering or anchoring in the real world. In the 1930s, Bowers had written,

It was the custom of many families to return to living sites and to point out to the younger people the depressions of lodges where certain relatives had lived, their graves, or earth rings on the prairies where various ceremonies such as the Naxpike or Wolf ceremonies were held.

Myths and legends may shore up a people’s identity, but real identification and actual connection is like a jolt of adrenaline. Visit the genealogy room at any local historical society. Watch somebody running a finger down an old marriage register and suddenly stopping, breathless—there it is—the signature of a great-great-grandmother on her wedding day—the living hand itself. It is the matrix of such true facts that secures for people a place in history—not in the imagined past of myth and legend, but in the actual past of real people and real events. The Italian historian Arnaldo Mo-migliano dismissed this sort of petty fact gathering as “antiquarianism”—obsession with unprocessed detail—but history, as an ambitious intellectual enterprise, begins with the accumulation of such detail, and can always be called to account for getting the detail wrong, or failing to admit where the detail is missing or in short supply.

I’m not trying to quarrel with Nabokov here. I admire his breadth of reading and his generous determination to give a full hearing to the whole range of Indian thinking about the past while scrupulously avoiding condescension about its gaps and implausibilities. But in his effort to legitimize Indian historical thinking I feel that he scants Indian efforts to create means of preserving a knowable past—that is, a readable record of actual persons and events. Two such means were perfected to a high level by plains Indians in the nineteenth century—the drawings, frequently historical in purpose, known as ledger art, and the tribal histories known as winter counts. Na-bokov mentions both but moves on quickly, in effect discounting what constitute the two largest bodies of sustained historical work produced by plains Indians born and grown to adulthood before the reservation era.

The making of ledger drawings was common among many western tribes, but winter counts were compiled mainly by the western or Teton Sioux, also called the Lakota. Both forms of record-making are primarily graphic in nature and historical in purpose and are clearly intended to preserve in durable form exactly those things which slip ineluctably over time from unaided memory, what we might call the populated past—men and their exploits, stirring events and sad stories, the years that marked the coming of horses, white men, and smallpox.


The custom of recording personal histories with drawings was well established by the time Lewis and Clark passed up the Missouri River in 1803, but the early drawings, on shirts, robes, and tepee covers, were rudimentary and their purpose narrow. By the 1860s both had changed dramatically—drawings were elaborate, colored, and carefully composed, and the original material of war deeds had expanded to include social customs and communal history. Ledger art got its name from its most common material—ledger books obtained from trading posts where Indians sold furs and bought staples like sugar, coffee, beads, iron kettles, tradecloth, powder and balls, and the like. White soldiers captured a Cheyenne ledger book at the Battle of Summit Springs in 1869, and a few years later, when about seventy Indians, mainly southern Cheyenne, were imprisoned for a time at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, they produced ledger drawings by the score—for personal pleasure, as gifts for white officers and schoolteachers, and for sale to tourists.

Ledger drawings as an art form flowered briefly from the 1870s to about the 1920s during the decades generally called “the early reservation period”—a time of profound cultural trauma as Indians left the old free life of the buffalo-hunting days for a new life as semi-prisoners living on government rations under official pressure to abandon their religion, traditional ceremonies, and old ways of communal living. So far as I know ledger drawings were made only by men and initially served mainly to record the lost life of warfare, hunting, and tribal identity. Thousands of such drawings were made by artists from a dozen tribes and bands, some crude and only half-realized, but others rising to a dazzling brilliance of drawing, composition, and color.

One of the largest bodies of ledger drawings was created over a half-century beginning about 1870 by the Kiowa artist Silver Horn, subject of a recent full-scale study by the Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Candace S. Greene. The numerous illustrations superbly reproduced in Silver Horn: Master Illustrator of the Kiowas demonstrate that the artist’s work served two distinct purposes—to capture the Kiowa love of design, color, and personal display, and to record both Kiowa communal life and the glories and horrors of the old warring life when the Kiowa were in constant battle with half a dozen tribes and the white soldiers and settlers who had come to take the land. Occasionally, Silver Horn attempted a large comprehensive portrayal of a historic event; a notable example is a painting on muslin, now at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, of the Battle of the Washita, where Colonel George Armstrong Custer attacked the village of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle in 1868.

More common were Silver Horn’s drawings of individual combat between Kiowa warriors, many identifiable by their headdress, shield, or other details, and Indian and white opponents. These represent actual, dateable events, and some also address and even settle broader historical questions. It was common among whites of the era, for example, to accuse Indians of torturing prisoners in a manner so horrible that every white was advised to save the last bullet for himself. Surviving evidence suggests that some tribes did this, and some didn’t. Silver Horn settles the question so far as the Kiowa are concerned with a drawing, Goyaesque in power, of a cowboy being burned alive. The cowboy (unmistakeably identified by his chaps) has already been scalped. He is seated directly in front of a fire, tied by the neck to a stake behind him, his arms stretched out like wings and each tied to a smaller stake, in effect forcing him to embrace the heat of blazing logs. An old caption claims that the Kiowa warrior Big Bow was responsible for this atrocity, but Greene argues that those singing and dancing while the cowboy died were actually women, wearing men’s war gear over their dresses. Few white memoirs of the Indian-fighting days contain any scene as brutal or as honest as this one.

Similar horrors, at first glance, seem to be found in page after page of drawings of dead white soldiers created by the Minneconjou Sioux artist Red Horse, collected on the Cheyenne River Indian reservation in 1881 by an agency physician, Charles E. McChesney. Red Horse’s record of the 1876 battle long known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” executed on forty-one sheets of heavy kraft paper each about two feet square, was not published in full until 1999, in Herman J. Viola’s Little Bighorn Remembered.2 Red Horse devoted five sheets to sixty-one drawings of Indian dead, each rendered distinct by details of dress, weapons, shield, or headgear. It is likely Red Horse could have named every one of them, but McChesney did not think to ask. Another five pages contain drawings of more than 120 dead white cavalrymen. Many are naked, many have been scalped, and many have been mutilated. The field is strewn with severed heads, arms, legs, hands, and feet—an accurate rendition of the horror confronted by the white troops who found their bodies two days after the battle. But these were mutilations of the dead expressing victory or triumph, not evidence of torture. The practice of northern plains tribes was to kill enemy warriors, not take them captive.

The Red Horse drawings, now badly deteriorated but preserved in the Smithsonian Institution, are in the first instance an ambitious work of art, the greatest we have by any participant in the battle. But the drawings can also be “read” as an account of the battle itself, capturing not only the broad sweep of the encounter, but details of the way it unfolded. This Red Horse account is persuasively analyzed by Sandra L. Brizée-Bowen in For All to See: The Little Bighorn Battle in Plains Indian Art, along with the work of a dozen other Indian artists. Rejecting the conclusion of the Army’s official report of the disaster, which said that only “the testimony of the field” offered an account of the final moments of Custer and his men, Brizée-Bowen has joined writers like Jerome Greene, Gregory F. Michno, and Richard Hardorff in claiming that Indian participants left readable memoirs in the form of drawings and interviews which add much to what we know from the simple placement of the bodies.

An even larger group of Little Bighorn drawings, sixty in all, was created by Amos Bad Heart Bull, only seven at the time of the battle but evidently an eager pupil of Oglala elders who had ample time during the early reservation period to talk of the past. Bad Heart Bull, nephew of the noted Oglala war leader He Dog, recorded tribal history in a sprawling masterwork of four hundred drawings. The ledger book containing them was purchased at the time of the Ghost Dance trouble in 1890–1891 from a white store owner in Crawford, Nebraska, about a mile up the road from Fort Robinson, where the artist enlisted as a scout for a year. On the death of the artist in 1913 his book passed into the hands of a sister, Dolly Pretty Cloud, who lent it to Helen Blish for study in the 1930s.

Blish’s doctoral dissertation based on the ledger book, along with the photocopied drawings, was published in 1967 by the University of Oklahoma Press as A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. This extraordinary book, long out of print, represents what is probably the single greatest effort by any Indian at any time to record the history of his people. The original ledger book is now long gone, buried with Pretty Cloud when she died in 1947, but Brizée-Bowen reproduces seventeen of Bad Heart Bull’s Little Bighorn drawings, and in them she helps us to see a sweeping narrative of the battle as great in its way as Evan Connell’s Son of Morning Star (1984) or Edgar I. Stewart’s Custer’s Luck (1955).


It is a puzzling fact that the Battle of the Little Bighorn, recorded by so many Indian artists in ledger drawings, is often ignored by the Lakota annual tribal histories called winter counts and is found in none of the ten winter counts possessed by the Smithsonian Institution. The interested reader may scroll through all ten at a Web site put up and handsomely supported by the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives ( Big killings are commonplace in winter counts, as they were commonplace on the plains, but Custer’s fate in June 1876, the biggest killing of all, is missing. Sometime in the next year or two all ten of these counts, with a great deal of additional information, will be published in a volume edited by Candace Green, Silver Horn’s author, and another scholar on Indian art, Russell Thornton, as The Year the Stars Fell, the name used in every winter count to record the great Leonid meteor shower visible across North America on the night of November 13, 1833. This important book, to be issued by the University of Nebraska Press, will make a wide selection of winter counts available for the first time since a number appeared in the 1880s in the fourth and tenth annual reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

The Lakota words for winter count are waniyetu (literally, winter), meaning a year as measured from first snow to first snow, and wowapi (count or counting)—in effect a count or list of years. A winter count in the first instance is a series of small drawings, each representing the signature event by which that year is later known. The purpose of a winter count is twofold—to fix in tribal memory the signal events of communal history, and to provide a chronology for dating personal or tribal events. Elderly Sioux in the twentieth century, filling out government documents, often answered with a winter count year when asked when something happened. Ellen Long Cat, applying for a pension in the 1920s as the widow of the US Army scout Long Cat, told a hearing officer that she had been “born the year that Conquering Bear was killed” (1854) and had married her first husband, Lodge Skin Moccasin, “the year that the tree fell on the old woman and killed her” (1869). These dates not only fix the woman’s age at fifteen on first marrying, but clearly identify her as an Oglala since other Sioux bands did not date 1869 with the falling tree incident. The drawings standing for such events are sometimes arranged in a spiral, reading out from the center; sometimes in page form, reading from top to bottom, left to right. Some winter counts are painted on hide, while others are recorded on muslin or even paper.

The span of years covered by a winter count is variable; some begin deep in the eighteenth century, others at the beginning of the nineteenth. Some halt in the 1870s, when the Sioux were confined to reservations; others include the Ghost Dance trouble and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 and continue on into the twentieth century. But the spine of years is useful as history only when someone survives to interpret it. Each year has a name—“One Horn broke his leg (1832)”; “battle on the ice (1836)”—but the context and significance of these events must be provided by the count’s keeper, who typically remembers the stories as they were passed down to him, and extends the list annually with a new signature event and its drawing.

When the Sioux began keeping winter counts is unknown. The first one acquired by whites was the work of the Yanktonai Sioux Lone Dog, creator of a seventy-year winter count (1800– 1870) collected in 1876 by Colonel Garrick Mallery in the Dakota Territory and published by him the next year in the United States Geographical Survey. At the time Lone Dog’s count was thought to be unique but in subsequent decades many winter counts migrated into white hands, some with written notation of the details surrounding each year’s signature event, some without. The ten winter counts held by the Smithsonian Institution are far from unique; Christina Burke, a research collaborator at the Smithsonian who also wrote part of The Years the Stars Fell, has compiled a list of more than 190, many of which, however, are exact or near duplicates. Certain events are common to most if not all winter counts, especially the plague years, when smallpox, measles, or cholera swept Indian country. Taken together these counts represent an attempt by the Lakota to record the signal events of their tribal history, but they also represent a deeper form of historicity—the effort to place themselves in time by establishing a spine of years allowing all events, not just those chosen as year events, to be placed confidently in chronological order—a first step toward recognizing the notions of change and causality.

One of the fullest and most interesting winter counts, spanning the years from 1759 through 1945, was maintained for many years at the end of its run by John Colhoff, the half-blood son of George Colhoff, a Georgian sent to Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, during the Civil War as a “galvanized Yankee”—that is, a Confederate prisoner paroled into the Union army for service in the West. There he married an Oglala woman and later worked as a storekeeper and interpreter on the Pine Ridge reserva-tion, where his son John was born in the 1880s and died about 1950. Known by the Oglala as Whiteman Stands in Sight, John Colhoff, largely self-taught, was for many years an interpreter and informant for white writers and scholars like Marie Sandoz, author of the first biography of Crazy Horse, and George Hyde, who wrote histories of the Oglala and the Brule Sioux, along with many other books.

The Colhoff winter count3 is a version of the winter count kept by No Ears, who was recorded in the US Army census of Oglala Sioux at the Red Cloud Agency in 1876–1877. Colhoff expanded and modified the No Ears count with the help of eight Oglala elders, all noted warriors of the 1870s. Scholars generally agree that choosing year events for winter counts was probably a collective effort, but this Colhoff count is the only one I know with a roster of named advisers.4 All of these men knew Crazy Horse, several surrendered with him in 1877, and all would have known the old man with the history stick described by Colonel Bradley.

What the stick said will probably never be known for sure, but we know enough to make some educated guesses. It was owned by an Oglala; it probably represented a winter count; and it was almost certainly a duplicate or slight variant of the No Ears winter count. If Colonel Bradley was right about the age of the owner then he would have been born in the year called Miwa tani awi ca tipi—the year the Sioux camped with the Mandan (1794). The last notch on the old man’s stick would have represented the year between the first snow of 1875 and the first snow of 1876. Many Oglala winter counts mark that as the year Red Cloud’s horses were taken by the white soldiers, full of wrath after the Custer fight, but the old man would not have been around for that. He would have been up north in the Tongue River country, living the old life with the people who killed Custer, and it is hard to imagine him picking something else to mark the year. Would he have admitted as much to Colonel Bradley? In my imagination the old man politely waves the matter aside, answering that question with a smile. But one thing I feel is sure: if the keeper of the stick had been asked what he recorded on it he would have answered that these were not mere stories or legends to pass the time on winter nights. These were facts, the names of actual men and the years of real events—“the history of the world from the beginning.”


Nailed Down September 22, 2005

  1. 1

    The Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger, edited by Thomas R. Buecker and R. Eli Paul.

  2. 2

    Times Books.

  3. 3

    Part of the Colhoff winter count was edited and published by William K. Powers (no relation), who knew John Colhoff at Pine Ridge in the 1940s, in American Indian Tradition, Vol. 9, Issue 1 (1963). An overlapping section with much additional information is found in Chicago’s Newberry Library, Elmo Scott Watson papers, Box 39, Folder 589.

  4. 4

    In the order given by Colhoff the advisers were Whirlwind Man, He Dog, Little Killer, Kills a Hundred, Chases in Winter, Little Shield, Short Bull, and Chasing Raven.