By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on December 22, 2023.
With the strokes of pen to hide, Lethbridge’s new winter count robe was started on Thursday morning as part of the inaugural Blackfoot winter solstice. The robe is an Indigenous tradition that uses hand-drawn symbols to document significant events while creating a piece of art to inform future generations.
Designed and created by artist William Singer III (Api’ soomaahka), who is also credited with crafting the Lethbridge College winter count robe which was unveiled during Truth and Reconciliation week, the work will hang on the second floor of the Cavendish Farms Center. At future Winter Solstices more will be added to the Robe commemorating the years as they come.
“During winter solstice, we are acknowledging and respecting the coming home of the sun,” says Elder Mike Bruised Head (Ninnaa Piiksii). “It’s an honourable and sacred time to the Blackfoot people.”
“We did not have a ceremony to honour the longest day. We went by the moons. We knew what the shortest day was, and it’s always been prayer,” Bruised Head explains.
“Back in the tipi camps, the winter camp, people would smoke their pipes in the morning and pray before the sun goes down. Winter solstice, I don’t want to make it into a pan-Indian thing or a festival, it wasn’t.”
Joining the events were grades 4 and 5 students from Coalbanks Elementary school who gathered eagerly around Singer as he drew the very first symbols. Within the Blackfoot community, Singer has the permission or rights to create things like winter count robes but also to paint tipis.
It is a right that is not given to everyone. Some of the images featured on the count are traditional, used by other artists, but Singer says many of the newer event related symbols were created by him taking inspiration from Blackfoot Sign Language.
“It’s good to do this todayâ€¦to have the children here to see that we still do these things, we’re still hereâ€¦” he says, adding, “this was something that was really interesting to share with the kids because this is the end of our year and the beginning of a new year.”
The winter count robe that will find home in the Cavendish Farms Centre is being created on elk hide. While they can be constructed using various types of hides, especially buffalo, this hide was purchased from the Raley Hutterite Colony east of Cardston.
Singer calls the robe “a way of recording and keep all of our history intact,” explaining that “a winter count serves a few other purposes and one of them is not only it tells a story, but a lot of the images are actually sign language.”
But the preservation that comes with creating the robe is beyond collecting recent events, Singer says it’s preserving many aspects of Blackfoot culture as well.
“The Blackfoot history is all oral, so these winter counts is a way to preserve all of that but it’s also to preserve language as well, to preserve sign languageâ€¦ the winter counts that were written back 100s of years ago, actually they correspond to all the western dates. And so winter counts are actually a really old form of telling our timeâ€¦ we just keep them and keep telling our stories for years into the future.”
When the marks had been made on the hide, the attendees and students gathered to learn more about Blackfoot rituals surrounding winter solstice, even being encouraged by Bruised Head to try their hand at creating their own visual records of their family histories.
Concluding with a round dance, the event provided light to what promises to be a very dark day.
Blackfoot winter solstice was the first of hopefully many annual gatherings to continue recording the highlights and low points in the year. In the end, says Singer, “It’s our form of science and technology as well.”