Native Village Youth and Education News

March 1, 2009 Issue 195 Volume 1


Family finds Lakota oral history
by Mark Steil
Condensed by Native Village

Worthington, MN:  In 1910, Lakota Chief Martin White Horse dictated stories about his South Dakota reservation community. After his oral history, called a winter count, was typed up, the transcript went into storage where it laid forgotten for decades. Last summer, the typist's descendants rediscovered it.  This rare, original oral history of Indian life is one of the oldest examples of its kind.

 The front page says ' 'transcript of the pictorial history of the Sioux nation as kept by the White Horse family ...' " read Libby Holden, the typist's great-grandaughter,
" '...Told by Chief White Horse of White Horse Station, Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, South Dakota, on September 8th, 1910.' "

Libby Holden's great-grandparents, George and Florence May Thwing, lived on the Cheyenne River Reservation in the early 1900s. George was an attorney who served Native Americans.  Florence May is the one who actually typed up Chief White Horse's stories. 

The 32-page narrative documents shares more than 100 years of Lakota history and culture. It starts with the year 1790.  Each year is described by a significant event. In the White Horse narrative, the entries include: 

(1823) In this year there was a big star (presumably a meteor) which came from the East and went toward the west: this star had a long tail and made a great noise and it burst in the west, causing an earthquake.

(1835) In the year of stars moving in the sky.

(1845): In this year the Sioux Indians were starving and dying for lack of food because there had been no buffalos in their country for a long time. So they took the head of an old buffalo and painted it red, and placed it in a tepee and worshipped it with much singing and other things, and asked this buffalo head to send them buffalos to where they are located inside the boundary line. Their prayers were successful and many buffalos came to the place where they were camped, so the Sioux had again plenty of food.

The White Horse narrative is a companion piece to a second historical document by the chief:  the White Horse winter count pictograph. The Pictograph is a series of drawings on a piece of canvas. Each drawing represents one year, starting in 1790 and ending in 1910. The pictograph has been in a Denver museum for several decades

"It's an important and irreplaceable document," said Ray DeMallie from Indiana University. "The winter count would be brought out literally during the dark evenings of winter and the count keeper would show the pictographs one by one and tell the stories behind them.  The primary audience would be children, bringing them up with a sense of history."

In December, a ceremony was held in the town of White Horse, South Dakota,  to mark the rediscovery of the narrative. "It was very, very meaningful," said Donna Rae Petersen, a tribal member who helped organize the event. "

Petersen said like many Indian communities across the nation, the people of are becoming more interested in their cultural heritage. "People were just genuinely happy to have something wonderful like this come back to their community as far as information goes," Petersen said. "It's our past coming back to life."

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