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New Fort Macleod series explores history of the Blackfoot Winter Count

Major events in the history of the Blackfoot people will be revealed during a series of presentations in Fort Macleod.
The events were recorded as a pictorial history that has come to be known as the Blackfoot Winter Count.
“It’s probably the oldest surviving document . . . recording the history of the Blackfoot and Piikani people,” said William Big Bull, a traditional knowledge advisor with the Piikani Nation.
The Blackfoot Winter Count series begins Tuesday, Feb. 11 and runs every Tuesday and Thursday until March 20.
The public presentations take place from 6-7 p.m. in the meeting room at Fort Macleod Health Centre.
The Blackfoot Winter Count series is presented by Alberta Health Services Addiction and Mental Health in partnership with Project Read in Fort Macleod.
“We’re honoured to be able to host this program for the community,” said Bernice Big Bull, an aboriginal child life specialist with Alberta Health Services. “We just host these as a cultural awareness program.”
Winter Counts are pictorial calendars or histories on animal hides on which First Nations recorded major events from every year.
Canon William Haynes, who was a missionary working with the Piikani, in 1912 began to interpret the Blackfoot Winter Count with the assistance of elder Bull Plume.
Bull Plume was the custodian of the Blackfoot Winter Count, which recorded the history beginning in 1761 on a buffalo hide.
“He sat with Bull Plume and Bull Plume told him the story of each year,” William Big Bull said. “It’s just a couple of lines, sometimes a sentence, describing that year’s event.”
Haynes recorded the story told by Bull Plume in a lined scribbler.
“They called it a winter count — Big Bull said. “Each year, one significant event was recorded. When we talk about a year, we call it as one winter.”
A copy of Haynes’ journal depicting the images and translations is archived at the Glenbow Museum and Archives in Calgary.
Big Bull and students at Piikani Nation Secondary School recreated the Winter Count on a hide that now hangs in the school.
“The history, and the method of the Winter Count, was the real reason I was teaching the students about how our records were recorded,” Big Bull said.
Five years into the Winter Count, they tell of the berries staying on the trees all winter.
The Winter Count also has years when there was hail and thunder in the winter, and the deer and buffalo got stuck in deep snow.
In other years the buffalo and antelope got sick following an eclipse, and strong winds were recorded as a significant event.
“The cycle that is recorded is very, very significant,” Big Bull said of periods of climate change. “There was no contact with anyone except our own people at that time.”
The arrival of guns, mules, wagons, the Mounted Police, construction of the fort and the signing of treaties were recorded on the Winter Count.
The presence of smallpox, yellow fever, whooping cough and other diseases are also part of the Winter Count.
“It tells quite a diverse story recorded by our own people,” Big Bull said. “It’s an amazing piece of history.”
William Big Bull said it was a significant decision by Bull Plume and the Piikani people to have Canon Haynes transcribe the Blackfoot Winter Count.
“At that time people were certain we were dying away,” Big Bull said. “We were the dying red man. Our way of life was disappearing, and that traditional knowledge of our people, they wanted to see it preserved. They wanted that story told.”
William Big Bull will tell that historic story, beginning Tuesday, Feb. 11.

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