Lesson Plan

Winter Count

Winter Count - small paintings on an elk hide
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Math,Science,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
30 Minutes
State Standards:
Science - (Meteor Showers)
Additional Standards:
Art- (Design a winter count)
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience.


Students will learn about Winter Counts.
Students will answer questions about a meteor shower.
What importance did the Winter Count have to the Native American tribes?
Students could give one reason to “Why was the winter count important to the Native American tribes?"


Some Native American tribes, such as Lakota and Kiowa, would come together during the winter. An event that was witnessed or had affected most of the tribe would be chosen to represent that year. One person would paint a picture representing that year onto an animal hide that the tribe kept. Stories might be told about each picture. Each tribe’s winter count would be different. The Native Americans did not have a written language. This was one way of recording their history.

The Winter Count, hanging in Fitzpatrick’s Room at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, is a representation of what a winter count could look like. This one has been painted on an elk hide and represents some events that took place in or near Bent’s Old Fort. The earliest event is represented in the middle of the elk hide and the later events spiral outward.

  1. Medicine Bears Daughter Marries Sioux Man
  2. Eight Cheyennes Killed And Decapitated By Crow Indians
  3. Cheyennes Drive Antelope Into Pit
  4. Old Horn Talks To Wolf
  5. Cheyennes Trade Buffalo Hides To Mandans For Corn
  6. Cheyennes See Giant Double-Toothed Buffalo
  7. Hair Rope Band Moves South To Arkansas River
  8. Starving Elk Gets A Dream Shield
  9. Chiefs Met William Bent (Little White Man)
  10. Blackbeard White Man (Ceran St. Vrain) Gives Chiefs Four Blankets
  11. Pawnees Take Medicine Arrows
  12. Small Pox Epidemic
  13. Utes Take Ten Horses
  14. Meteor Shower (Night Stars Fell)
  15. Many Magpies (Heads-Of-Birds) Trade 25 Buffalo Robes To William Bent
  16. Chiefs Concil With White Soldiers (Col.Henry Dodge) At Bents Fort
  17. Trading Post Built Near Mountains (Fort St. Vrain)
  18. Owl Woman Marries White Trader (William Bent)
  19. Kiowa Shoots Gentle Horse In The Face
  20. Howling Water Takes Three Horses From White Men
  21. Inter-Tribal Council Held Near Bents Fort. Cheyenne & Arapahoes Make Peace With Kiowa And Comanches; Known As Giving Presents To One Another Across The River
  22. Shell’s Horse Gored By Buffalo Bull
  23. Sioux Recover A Cheyenne Medicine Arrow
  24. Another Trading Post Built On The Arkansas (El Pueblo)
  25. Starvation Winter (Not Enough Buffalo Meat)
  26. Measles Epidemic
  27. Whooping Cough Sickness
  28. White Hat (Charles Bent) Killed By Pueblos And Mexicans

The Night the Stars Fell, 1833, was a Leonid meteor shower. Leonid meteor showers usually take place in November and generally are small, but when they peak about every 33 years, the sky lights up like "stars falling." The Leonid peak in 1833 was viewed by many Plains Native American tribes. Some of these tribes viewed the meteor shower as a bad omen, and prayed that they would survive the night. 


Winter Count Worksheet - Questions and pictures (Same questions as listed in procedure.)

Download Winter Count Worksheet

This is a printable list of what the pictures on the winter count represent. (Same as listed in Background information.)

Download Winter Count Representation


1) Introduce the winter count. Tell students general information about Native American Winter Counts, such as, some were used to record history of the tribes before a written language.

2) Students guess as a class what each picture might represent. Teacher writes on board one popular guess for each picture.

3) Teacher reads the interpretation of the Winter Count. Students compare their own guesses to the actual interpretation. Students answer "why is it difficult to interpret the pictures on the Winter Count."

4) Students learn about "The Night The Stars Fell" by completing a worksheet.

Winter Count Worksheet


Can you find the picture of a meteor shower on the elk hide picture?

  • How do you know it represents a meteor shower?
  • What year did it take place?

What is a meteor shower? (Multiple choice)

  1. Stars moving really fast in the sky
  2. Small bodies of matter (pieces of rock and metal) burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere
  3. Celestial objects consisting of a nucleus of ice and dust and, when near the sun, a “tail” of gas and dust particles pointing away from the sun.

Which meteor shower is pictured on the elk hide?

  1. Leonids peak about every 33 years, most recently peaking in 1998.
  2. Hailey’s comet is about every 75-76 years. Most recently seen in 1986
  3. The biggest meteor show each year is usually the Perseids

Which month did the meteor shower take place?

  1. Leonids- November
  2. Hailey’s Comet –Different month each time
  3. Perseids- between July and August
  • What tools do we now have to study meteor showers that the Native Americans at that time did not have?

If you did not know about meteor showers and you saw what looked like “stars falling,” what would you think it meant?

Bonus- Star Trek calls Space “The Final Frontier.” How does the mystery of space for us in the present compare to the mystery and appeal of space for the West in the 19th century?

Enrichment Activities

As a class, come up with a “winter count.” You may use a big piece of paper, or the chalkboard in front of the class. Start with the present year, ask the class what was an important event that happened to almost everyone in this class that year. You could also choose to have a daily count for a week just to demonstrate. Have a student come to the board and draw a simple picture to represent that event. Try to have at least 7 events. Have the pictures go in a spiral. Compare the winter count to modern timelines.

As a different activity, have every individual draw their own winter count representing each year of their lives. Remind students they could include events such as the birth of a sibling or cousin, starting a new school, moving, meeting new friends. This could be a homework assignment and volunteers could present in front of class the next day. The students do not have to be artists if they could tell what is happening in each of their pictures. They cannot write words on their winter counts. 

Additional Resources

Students can learn about other Winter Counts and compare the different designs. The Smithsonian Institute has an online Winter Count Exhibit

Contact Information

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Last updated: December 24, 2016