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Lakota Winter...Then and Now

Wolf Image

Since I was born in January, I wanted to tell a winter story.............This is about the Winter Traditions of the Lakota people as I have experienced growing up as a child, and as told to me by my older relatives.

I will start with the Winter Traditions prior to modern times. Traditionally, the winters in the Plains were (and still are) a time of a lot of snow, cold, wind, etc. The children and most adults spent much time in the tipi's as the weather was rather harsh. Some hunting was done, and if an enemy attacked, the men (and some women) would fight back to protect the people. But as a general rule it was a "slow" time of year.

During the winter, the Lakota women would make gifts for give aways that would take place in the warmer weather. This would include beading, quill work, clothing, and other things. The young girls were taught from the older girls and women, especially the aunts, how to bead, quill,etc. and many stories were told to them of what would be expected of them as they became adult women. These stories were usually in the form of animal stories to be used as analogies, or just about people that were usually fictitious characters. The young girls were taught a lot of skills, but it was also a lot of fun, for there was visiting from others in the camp, and many happy stories and jokes were told.

The young boys were also taught by the older boys and men,especially their Uncles, how to do certain tasks. They were taken out in the cold to become strong, and to be taught how to recognize animal tracks in the snow. They were taught how to hunt in the winter, and other skills necessary for the survival of the people.

Also, stories were told, as like the girls, to teach lessons about life, and what would be expected of them as adult men.

During this time, the Winter Count was done, usually by the women on the skin of a brain tanned buffalo hide. Pictures were put on the hide depicting the events that took place during the year. Some were sad, some were very funny, and some were just things about what was interesting. Any enemy attack was painted, victories, things like that. Since food was scarce in the winter, the Plains people ate dried food that was made during the summer. This is often referred to as "pemmican." This is actually a Cree word (pimikan) and is usually dried meat and fat that was used as food mostly in the winter.

Things have changed a little for Lakota people, just as they have changed for every ethnic group. But there are still some traditions that are practiced today by my family and this is what I will go by. Since a lot of kids have computers, a lot of the story telling is not as much as it used to be. Many times, if someone comes to visit, especially an older person, the kids are included and encouraged to sit down and listen. My sister and her family in Spearfish, South Dakota do this. Her daughters that are at home are taught by her how to bead and make earrings. My brother in law does excellent quill work, and spends most of the winter making things to sell. Also, as in the past, gifts are made for the give aways that will be held during the summer months at powwows, naming ceremonies, and at the Sun Dance. Lakota women do all kinds of art work now, not just beading, so things such as crocheting, macrame and needle point, are also done.

Both men and women do beading and quill work today, so both boys and girls are taught these skills if they wish. Many young people are learning the language, and as one old guy told my wife (who is Italian descent)" My grandson is speaking Indian real good at 6yrs old!" I just want to add, that on the rez many people refer to themselves as Indians, and call the language "Indian," even though everyone knows it's Lakota. Also, referring to an elderly person as "old" is not considered derogatory or insulting to the Lakota people.

Another tradition that is done by certain Lakota people is a Wounded Knee Memorial. It takes different forms, depending on the people running it. It can be a Memorial Ride on horse back to follow the route that the people took or it can be a simple pot luck get together. I have been running the Wounded Knee Memorial in Connecticut (where I live now) since 1990.That was the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre, and I would like to give Nancy, my wife, the credit for coming up with the idea. At first it was just going to be in 1990, but I held it every year after that. It is a bit smaller now but remains a pot luck held indoors, usually at a friend's home. People in the Indian/Native community are invited and we welcome people of all ethnic backgrounds to come. We ask that everyone bring something to eat. There is no admission fee. We have been very lucky to get a drum group that comes to the event and do not wish to be paid; they also refuse to even take gas money. This is the Indian way. I also have had many people, both Indian and non-Indian, help me in other ways with the Memorial.

I want the Wounded Knee Memorial to be a positive thing, not an "anti white man" deal. I want what happened at Wounded Knee to be remembered....the people who were massacred...those that survived. But I also want it to be a celebration if you will, that we are still here. That Native People didn't just "go away." That the culture is still here, and more young people are actively involved in their culture and language. We have speakers to talk about Indian/Native issues. Some people will read a poem. We also remember those who died during the year. Then we eat. After dinner, dancing and singing starts. Regalia is optional, and even though it is a sad event that this is for, a good time is had.

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