A Gift of the Iinii

The story of Lethbridge College’s traditional Winter Count Buffalo Robe

Lethbridge College unveiled its traditional Buffalo Winter Count Robe in 2023 as part of events surrounding the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The robe is used as a teaching tool, as a record of major college events, and as a sign of the college’s ongoing work to understand and honour traditional cultures and ways of knowing.

Kainai Knowledge Keeper and artist William Singer III (Api’soomaahka/Running Coyote) painted Lethbridge College’s robe in the spring and summer of 2023. Colleagues from departments across campus (including Indigenous Services, Communications, Marketing, Student Affairs, and Executive Leadership) came together with Kainai Kaahsinnoonik (Grandparent) Peter Weasel Moccasin (Miiniipooka/Berry Child) to create the list of events to be included in Lethbridge College’s robe.

“Winter Counts were created and are still created as a way of communicating, of transferring knowledge,” says Singer. “Looking at a history, this robe tells the story of the college. It’s for teaching as well. Some of the symbols are straightforward. Others have different meanings. And there are also elements where you have to take action. Each symbol has a story, and they all fit into each other and form a chain until the end, and once you fill up a hide, you start another. There is space left on the college’s winter count so the story can be added to.”

What is a Winter Count?

A Winter Count is a pictorial calendar or history painted on a buffalo hide created by many Northern Great Plains First Nations that carries the story of a community. Traditionally, each nation would choose a single keeper of the winter count; each year, at the first snowfall, the keeper would consult with elders to reach a consensus for choosing a name and pictograph for the year, and then would add that image to the robe. These Winter Counts robes were used as guideposts in transmitting oral tradition and history. The college’s robe tells the story of the college’s history with its community, from the land where it was built, to its foundation in 1957, through to today, and for seasons to come. 

Where did Lethbridge College’s Buffalo Robe come from?

The idea of Lethbridge College acquiring a Winter Count robe stemmed from the college’s participation in the McConnell Foundation’s Social Innovation Lab on Reconciliation in the Postsecondary Sector. Wanting the college to be a “catalyst for change,” the Indigenous Services team felt a Winter Count robe would not only be a prominent symbol of traditional Blackfoot Territory on campus, but it would also reaffirm the close relationship between the college and Indigenous communities in southern Alberta – specifically the Piikani and Kainai First Nations. Please see the story written by Tina Karst in the fall 2023 issue of Wider Horizons to learn rest of the story of how the robe came to be at Lethbridge College.

How will Lethbridge College use its traditional Buffalo Winter Count Robe?

The traditional Buffalo Winter Count Robe will typically be displayed on campus for students, employees and visitors to learn from. However, it will be placed in a portable showcase so that it can be transported to other areas to be used in different ceremonial events, including convocation, or to classrooms and other campus spaces to be used as a learning tool for students, community members and friends of the college.

Why did the college choose to have a robe created?

The creation of the robe and commitment to using it as a teaching tool and to record major college events is a sign of the college’s ongoing work to understand and honour traditional cultures and ways of knowing. It is also a way for the college to lead in implementing the actions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Lethbridge College’s traditional Buffalo Winter Count Robe serves as a visual reminder that the college’s history and the history of the Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy) are inexorably linked. 

What other projects has singer collaborated on with the college?

Singer started collaborating with the college in 2017. His first project was creating a special painting for Founders’ Square, which was built as a way of commemorating Lethbridge College’s 60th anniversary. The next major project Singer worked on was in 2020, when he helped create an online tour of the traditional plants found in the coulees behind campus, a resource that is now shared by students, alumni, employees and friends of the college. That project launched a related one – the creation of the Iissksiniip Coulee Walk, which opened in fall 2021. The Iissksiniip Coulee Walk is an interpretative self-guided tour that explores the traditional plants found in the area, explains their uses and shares some of the traditional creation stories of the Siksikaitsitapi, the Blackfoot Confederacy. 

Learn more about the artist who painted the robe

William Singer is a member of the Kainai First Nation. He was named after his great uncle Running Coyote, a Blackfoot warrior who, in his later years, created pictograph art for elder warriors who wanted their stories saved for future generations. Knowing this, Singer said it is his duty to carry on his namesake’s legacy by surviving in two worlds and maintaining the Blackfoot worldview. Singer’s main profession is as an artist/illustrator with 40 years of experience, and his work is deeply rooted in the Blackfoot worldview and uses painting to teach. Along with his art, Singer is a dedicated entrepreneur, environmental and political activist who uses Blackfoot ecological knowledge and protocol in his work. He also works in areas such as food security and sovereignty, Blackfoot science and physics, watershed health, and grassland restoration. Singer has been involved in many spiritual, cultural events and activities and has always been an advocate for First Nations rights, knowledge and wellness. Singer is well known to the Blood Tribe community for being a knowledge keeper and expert of traditional plants and their uses.

What was the process of creating the robe like for Singer?

Singer explains: “Whenever I work on it, I always have good thoughts. I think of the history of the college and how far they’ve come and how much is happening within the community right now. I think about the students at the school and the individuals who have worked or handled this hide itself, and I feel that – I feel all that energy on the hide. I think of a lot of things to prepare myself to get into the good thoughts and good spirits needed to create this Winter Count.”