Winter counts are histories or calendars in which events are recorded by pictures, with one picture for each year. The Lakota call them waniyetu wowapi. Waniyetu is the word for year, which is measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. It is often translated as 'a winter.' Wowapi means anything that is marked on a flat surface and can be read or counted, such as a book, a letter, or a drawing.
Winter counts are physical records that were used in conjunction with a more extensive oral history. Each year was named for an event and the pictures referring to the year names served as a reference source that could be consulted regarding the order of the years. People knew the name of the year in which other important events occurred, and could place these in time by referring to the winter count.
The events used to name the years were not necessarily the most important things that happened but ones that were memorable and widely known within the community. One of those events, The Year the Stars Fell, was also widely known to non-Lakota people. The Smithsonian scholar Garrick Mallery recognized it as the Leonid meteor storm of November 1833, and he used this event to correlate the Lakota winter counts with the Western calendar. Much of the information in this online exhibit is based on his publications of 1886 and 1893 (see Learning Resources).tags