Family finds Lakota oral history

The Chief White Horse winter count pictograph has been in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for several decades. The count starts with the drawing of a crow in the center-left portion of the cloth representing the year 1790.
© DENVER MUSEUM OF NATURE & SCIENCE, Photo Scott Dressel-Martin

The 32-page narrative is now in the Edina home of 25-year-old Libby Holden and her family. The document is a simple looking binder of legal-size paper with red margins on both sides of the sheets. Some of the cream colored pages are a little tattered at the edges. Holden said her great-grandmother typed out the oral history nearly 100 years ago.

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

The neatly-typed pages document more than a century of the history and culture of the Lakota, known to white settlers as the Sioux. It starts with the year 1790. It's part of a Lakota oral history tradition known as the winter count.

Each year is described by a significant event. In the White Horse narrative, the entry for some years is just a few words.

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

Others howerver, are longer, such as this passage from 1845.

(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.

This sort of first hand history is what makes the White Horse document so valuable. But after Holden's great-grandmother typed it out in 1910, it seems to have disappeared.

A family document
Libby Holden, 25, of Edina, holding the nearly 100-year-old document that contains the oral history of Lakota Chief Martin White Horse. Holden's great-grandmother typed out White Horse's stories in 1910.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Libby Holden said her grandmother, who inherited the oral history, never spoke about it. It's possible she never knew she had the document. When she died, her possessions were stored at the family's printing company.

Last summer, Libby Holden and several other family members began sorting through the items. Holden says one big musty old trunk was especially interesting.

"It was full. Jewelry, Native American bracelets and beadwork that was gorgeous," Holden said. "Letters, scarfs, small pictures. Things were still on hangers and orderly in drawers."

Holden said the trunk also contained the White Horse oral history. She said it's possible the items were packed away by her great-grandmother and left untouched by her descendants.

"We all read it later that night at dinner or afterwards and we said 'Hey, this is really cool,'" Holden said.

(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.

She said the discovery of the White Horse narrative pulled the family back to a place important to its own history, the Cheyenne River reservation in north central South Dakota. Holden's great grandparents, George and Florence May Thwing, lived there in the early 1900s. George was an attorney who served Native Americans and Florence May is the one who actually typed up the White Horse stories.

Nearly a century after she and Chief White Horse sat down with interpreter Harvey Left Handed Bear, the family sent copies of the oral history back to the town that bears the chief's name. About 75 people attended a ceremony in the town of White Horse last December to mark the rediscovery of the narrative.

"It was very, very meaningful," said Donna Rae Petersen, a tribal member who helped organize the event.

"With this time frame of recession, depression if you will, in this small, little community on the Moreau River on a very, super-cold, Sunday afternoon, people came together and it was a good, warm feeling," Petersen said.

Chief Martin White Horse
Lakota Chief Martin White Horse was a winter count keeper for his tribe in South Dakota. He died in 1915.
Photo courtesy of the Timber Lake and Area Historical Society

Petersen said, like many Indian communities across the nation, the people of Cheyenne River 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."

The White Horse narrative is a companion piece to a second historical document the chief left behind, the White Horse winter count pictograph. It's a series of drawings on a piece of canvas, each drawing represents one year, starting in 1790 and ending in 1910.

Libby Holden and her sister Tricia
Libby Holden, foreground, recounts the story of how her family found the oral history of Lakota Chief Martin White Horse while going through her deceased grandmother's things last June. She's seated next to her sister, Tricia, in their Edina home.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The pictograph has been in a Denver museum for several decades. Ray DeMallie is an anthropology professor at Indiana University who's researched and written about winter counts. He said to find an oral history like the White Horse narrative that tells the stories in a pictograph, is a rare event.

"It's an important and irreplaceable document," DeMallie said.

DeMallie said the winter count was used by the Lakota as a way to track the years. There was a designated winter count keeper, who added a new drawing each year.

"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," DeMallie said. "The primary audience would be children, bringing them up with a sense of history."

The drawings are very simple. Some are easy to interpret, others may leave the viewer guessing. A drawing on the White Horse winter count of a human figure covered with red spots tells of a smallpox outbreak that year. There are at least a couple of dozen winter count pictographs known to exist in the U.S.

Narratives explaining them though are much rarer. There may be only a half dozen or so of these oral histories, ranging from rough notes to the more complete narratives like the White Horse document. For Libby Holden of Edina, the oral history her family found last summer is a unique contribution to Lakota culture, but it's also important to her own family history.

"It's our past coming back to life."

"We always knew that our great-grandfather had strong associations with the Native American population in South Dakota," Holden said. "But we never knew that our great-grandmother was also involved with them. The document sheds a lot of light on her role."

That role was most prominent on a cool, late summer day, a Thursday, in 1910 when Chief White Horse dictated his stories. By that date, 20 years after the Wounded Knee massacre, the days of the Lakota living on the open prairie were long over. Hemmed in on reservations, they faced new threats almost yearly. Even as he dictated his stories, the chief knew that the federal government would begin selling parts of the Cheyenne River reservation to white homesteaders that very month. But that loss is not what he focused on in the winter count.

The last entry is 121, from the year 1910.

(1910) In this year we saw a great comet in the sky. It was called by the white people Halley's Comet.

"I think that's a wonderful way for the document to end," Holden said. "Reading that last entry makes me smile. It makes me think that there's hope that the culture of the family of White Horse can be preserved. It can continue to go on and be as constant as Halley's Comet."

But some pages of the cultural history of the White Horse family are a little tattered at the edges, others are missing completely. Thanks to a Twin Cities family though, a few of those lost pages have been restored.

Click here to see an interactive graphic of the "winter count" pictograph and read some of the entries from the historical narrative. You can also view a full-size, hi-res version of the pictograph to examine for yourself.