Grade 6-12 students learned about the Blackfoot tradition of winter counts and created their own version using traditional Blackfoot and Plains pictographs.
The Blackfoot nation is made up of four nations. These nations include the Piegan Blackfeet, Siksika, Piikani Nation, and Kainai or Blood Indians. The four nations come together to make up what is known as the Blackfoot Confederacy, meaning that they have banded together to help one another. The nations have their own separate governments ruled by a head chief, but regularly come together for religious and social celebrations. The Blackfoot are today located throughout Alberta and parts of Montana and Saskatchewan. Traditionally, they had a way of life centered around buffalo hunting.
I recently attended a two day workshop on the Siksika Nation reserve near Calgary, Alberta. We learned about the rich culture and history of the Siksikai’tsitapi, in their natural environment, to enhance the implementation of programs for our students.
During the workshop, we were given a tour of Old Sun College, a former residential school where many atrocities happened. Today it is a First Nations run college. Inside the library is a beautiful buffalo hide winter count on display.
Winter Count Calendars
Traditional Plains calendars are called winter counts because among most Plains tribes they feature a single pictogram that defined the entire year. Prior to using the Gregorian calendar, Blackfoot people counted years according to 'winters' rather than European calendar years. Before the late 19th century when buffalo became scarce, winter counts were painted in buffalo hides. The annual pictograms could be arranged in a linear, spiral, or serpentine pattern.
Process and materials
Buffalo hides, as well as deer, elk, and other animal hides, were painted. In the past, Plains artists used a bone or wood stylus to paint with natural mineral and vegetable/plant pigments. Before contact with Europeans they used natural pigments. Later they used commercial dyes obtained through trade.
I used this winter count as inspiration for a project to do with my students on National Indigenous Peoples Day at my school. It's a day recognising and celebrating the cultures and contributions of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Indigenous peoples of Canada. No exams can be held on this day.
I printed out a buffalo hide template (HERE) and enlarged it onto 11 x 17" paper. I pre-tinted them all a light brown using liquid watercolour. I also made a handout for my students using the pictographs found on the winter count I photographed at Old Sun College. Most students went with the spiral composition, starting at the center and spiralling outwards. We used Sharpies and some chose to add some traitional colours of blues, red and ochres.
Here are some of the finished ones: