The winter count, and the many mutualisms of the bison
With winter now in full swing, we wanted to explore the ways different festivals and traditions relate to symbiosis. One custom, known as the winter count, was commonly practiced amongst the Lakota and Dakota peoples of the Great Plains. Traditionally, a member of the community records a defining moment from the past year on the skin of an American Bison (the Lakota word is Tatanka; the scientific name for the plains subspecies is Bison bison bison).
(Photo Credit to State Historical Society of North Dakota)
The winter count pictured above was made by High Dog, a Lakota man who lived in Standing Rock approximately 100 years ago. The events depicted on his winter count date back to the late 1700s, including a famous Leonid meteor shower that took place in 1833. As we write this winter newsletter for you, though different from High Dog, we hope to honor this form of winter storytelling shared across cultures.
Although Native peoples had been hunting Great Plain bison to help meet their food, clothing, and other needs for thousands of years, white sport hunters brought in by railroads in the mid- to late 1800s quickly hunted bison to the brink of extinction. As Native peoples living in the Great Plains had strong cultural ties to bison, this changed their way of life drastically. Traditional Tatanka skin winter counts by historians such as High Dog became scarce as the population dropped from over 25 million to two thousand or fewer. In addition to their direct cultural significance, bison also played a dominant role in shaping the prairie vegetation (i.e., they were a keystone species) for tens of thousands of years. Bison and prairie dogs (another keystone species of the Great Plains) share a loose mutualistic relationship with each other. Grazing herds of bison are drawn to prairie dog towns because of the dirt left by burrows. The bison roll around in the dirt to rid themselves of ticks. In turn, bison fertilize the soil with their manure and graze on the grasses, which encourages new growth more palatable and nutritious for the prairie dogs.
One of BIOTA’s mission is to provide our audience with information about different types of symbiotic interactions. Symbiotic interactions can be fascinating to learn about for their own sake, but can also help illuminate ways in which an ecosystem can unravel if the wrong thread is tugged. The severe reduction of the bison population led to many consequences for the Great Plains ecosystems, including the well-being of the humans living there. The societal and ecological challenges faced by High Dog and his contemporaries at Standing Rock continue to reverberate in the lives of his descendants who live there today.
- A digital winter count exhibit
- An article on Lakota cultural ties to bison
- Recent history of bison hunting
- More information on prairie ecology