from A Contemporary Winter Count
Kerry M. Scott
Thesis, University of Lethbridge, 2002
Ironically, from the Native perspective, the concept of oral tradition could be considered a fallacy as it is described and used by teachers and professors today. It is a fallacy because it focuses only on oral communication. In reality, our oral tradition was an all-encompassing medium of communication that included the telling of the story, the gestures that accompanied the story and symbolism as depicted within a Winter Count. All reflected the history of our community and our communal conversation, mirroring the mind of our society and the character of our civilization. Sign (sign language) was the communication medium of all Plains Indians and it is from Signs that the Winter Count was able to be recorded. In addition, Sign, as Tomkins (1969) describes, was a language with a scope in its evolution and content that went beyond simple communication. Indeed, Sign may have been the "first universal language," a "genuine Indian language of great antiquity" with a "beauty and imagery possessed by few, if any, other languages." Sign was the "foremost gesture language the world has ever produced."
Sign made it possible for individuals from tribes of different language groups to communicate with each other. The People were not limited to words. They utilized the cultivated Art of Sign and symbolism. Sign was not only used in close quarters when communicating with friends, or used as a necessity when secrecy was vital to survival. Sign could also be used at ease when the eye could see but the distance was too great for the ear. It was a thing of beauty, for its gestures were wide and sweeping, and when combined with a spoken Native language, the speaker’s intentions were rarely misunderstood. To observe accomplished Sign Talkers today is a wonder that anyone of any race would marvel at.
We Indians see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life. Indians live in a world of symbols and images, where the spiritual and the commonplace are one, and where the physical and its spiritual aspect are connected – this is part of the metaphysical world of the Indian. To most non-Natives, symbols are just words, spoken or written in a book. To Indians, they are a part of nature, part of ourselves and they act as an umbilical cord that keeps us connected to all things in the universe. We try to understand them, not with the head, but with the heart, and we need no more than a suggestion to remember and give us the story.
The commonplace, to an Indian artist, appears wondrous because of symbolism, and instead of seeing a geometric pattern of Blackfoot beadwork, for example, with only lines, triangles and diamond shapes, the artisan can track the accomplishments of an entire life story. In this way, symbols let us record our history without an alphabet. And symbols are there to remind us and give meaning to the abstract.
In the past, the communicative aspects of Indian life were vital to the survival of the Indian people. Over long distances they could communicate with each other via smoke signals or via signs when following a trail. There were ways of letting the tracker or follower know the intentions of the others. Symbols and signs could consist of mounds of stones piled on the ground or sticks laid out in various formations that would provide information to the observer. When one looks at the symbol painted on a buffalo robe or carved into a rock face or laid out on the ground, it is reasonably apparent that each sign was the complete formation of a sentence. This was how the Winter Count keepers, with their use of symbolism, were so adept at remembering stories. By painting the different time sequences in this contemporary Winter Count, it is easy to understand how this is possible, for it only takes one look at a painting and all the memories of the time period materialize, as if by magic. Like the symbols of Winter Counts of old, the paintings are the triggers to remind us of the events of a time gone by.