Christina Burke

Marking a year, marking a change

As Sitka Center for Art and Ecology assumes stewardship of an arts-literacy program, its first lesson brings a Native American tradition to elementary students

When the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology offers its first art lesson for the Community Arts Project this month, it will tap into a centuries-old Native American tradition, one that will call on families to gather, reflect, and maybe even begin a new tradition of their own. 

In Native American culture, it was known as the “winter count,” a tradition practiced by certain communities of the northern Great Plains, said Nicola Harrison, Sitka general manager and former executive director for Community Arts Project (CAP).

Every year, elders would gather to talk about events of the passing year – measured from the first snowfall of the year to the next year’s first snowfall. The elders chose one important event and named the year for it. The person known as the “keeper” painted a pictograph on a buffalo hide, paper, or cloth to commemorate the event. The keeper was also tasked with storytelling and ensuring the winter count was passed down to subsequent  generations.

Battiste Good (Sicangu Larkota) (ca. 1821-1894) kept a winter count that was unusual in that it contained more than 500 years of Lakota History. Its reference to the year 1834, “the year the stars fell,” commemorates the November 1833 Leonid meteor shower with an image of a tipi covered in stars. Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board
Battiste Good (Sicangu Larkota) (ca. 1821-1894) kept a winter count that was unusual in that it contained more than 500 years of Lakota history. Its reference to the year 1834, “the year the stars fell,” commemorates the November 1833 Leonid meteor shower with an image of a tipi covered in stars. Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board

This month, Sitka will reach out to some 300 students in the Nestucca Valley Elementary and Garibaldi Grade schools in its new role since taking on oversight, operating, and fundraising responsibilities for CAP this fall.   

“The kids in the community need to express themselves now more than ever and have that joy in their daily routine,” Harrison said. She will make a classroom presentation via Zoom, followed by a discussion to “share ideas and talk about events we want to share and how we would symbolize with imagery and not use words,” she said.


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Students will have access to a prerecorded demonstration they can watch with their families on how to do the project. Instead of sharing art supplies at school, Harrison said, Sitka will purchase and deliver individual supplies that the students can keep.

In traditional Native American culture, a winter count might record disease, war, disaster, or natural phenomena, such as the widely depicted Leonid meteor storm of 1833.

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