Harvey Markowitz is the guest speaker at this year's Ridington Lecture at McDaniel College, hosting a presentation on the Lakota winter counts, a Native American historical and artistic tradition that ended in the early 20th century.
Markowitz is an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and is the co-editor of "Seeing Red: Hollywood's Pixeled Skins" which examines the depiction of Native Americans in film. He spoke with the Times about the winter counts, the Lakota and his background in anthropology.
Q: Your lecture will detail the Lakota winter counts. Could you describe what exactly those are?
The Lakota are the Western Sioux, but they call themselves Lakota. The winter count is basically a chronology of the most important events that happened in an extended family band
Each year, the band would decide which was the most important event of the year, usually in the winter, and the band's historian would draw the picture on buffalo hide and then remember the story. There was no writing at the time [this tradition was practiced until the early 20th century], but the oral history went along with the pictograph, and year after year this was done. In some bands, the winter counts go back 120 years, so we have a long representation with what the Lakota people found important in their lives. It's a good view of their lives before they were put in reservations and before they were submitted to policies which were intended to assimilate them into the mainstream in the late 19th, early 20th century.
Q: What are some of the values that the winter counts display?
They are a great way of telling your history, but they also served another function. Since they did not use numbers to designate years, a person could refer back in time using the winter counts. They could say, in the year we stole horses from the Crow Indians, so-and-so happened. It was a way of associating one event with another. The alternate function is that it was used by the winter count keeper to keep track of the values at stake for the group. Most of the things in the counts refer to what is important to a small group, like a good year of buffalo hunting, a year where they were successful at raiding an enemy tribe for horses or the death of an important leader. It's not meant to record history like we record history, it's meant for that group to measure what was important in terms of its values; what gave their life meaning.
Q: In addition to the historical context, is there also an artistic significance?
Artistically, from our perspective, these are not great works of art, but what is important is that this was a tradition that called upon the recorders to encapsulate very complicated events into just one or two symbols. It calls upon real intelligence to do that. Even though, we don't always know the specific events, because many of the oral traditions have been lost for some times, we can generally tell what happened because the way of portraying certain incidents was shared throughout the Lakotas. You would generally get the same kind of representation of a Crow Indian, who were the enemies of the Lakotas, and you would get a typical way of drawing horse stealing, and a typical way of drawing diseases and death.
Q: What is the importance of studying or preserving the winter counts?
We consider the importance of history to be historical accuracy. To us, that's the most important thing, telling the story of an object or an event in the most objective way possible. The general story of the winter count is one about values and what's important to the group. What's being performed is an expression of their life and values. There are representations of death or good buffalo hunting seasons, and you get interactions with the mysterious and the sacred. There's a number of symbols on these winter counts that represent sacred things. In one story, a group of brave scouts go out looking for a buffalo, and they find a buffalo and kill it. Inside its stomach they find a little old lady, and this was considered mysterious and sacred. How did this happen? This must be an important sign from the spirits or the gods.
Q: What is your background with the Lakota tribe?
I studied anthropology and worked with a really wonderful historian. I focused on ethno-history, which asks [the question]: When so much of documentation is written by an outsider's point of view, how do you use the documents and the oral tradition that is still alive to understand more about the culture of a people? It was arranged for me to go out to the Rosebud reservation, which is in South Dakota. I was supposed to stay for six weeks, but I ended up staying 12 years on the reservation because I loved it so much. There was a family that took me in and taught me the language, and they were good enough and patient enough to take me around with them to social events and ceremonies. They were the Horselooking family. I love the reservation. The people there were great to me and were very generous with their time and efforts and resources.
Q: What is it you hope people who are unfamiliar with the Lakota take away from the lecture?
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The main thing I want people to take away is an appreciation for how something we take for granted - history - can be understood in a totally different way, and have totally different functions associated with it. It brings a different look to what we take for granted. That's the goal of anthropology in general. We assume that what we do every day is human nature, but we find out as we look at other cultures that they have a completely different slant on human nature. Their cultural traditions are very different from ours, but very deeply thought out and practiced. It gives you a new sense of the creativity of human beings and the values that makes life meaningful for them. Hopefully some of that will come out during the presentation.