Make your history count the Lakota way

Lakota Count make your history count

Lakota Count. Image courtesy of The Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, USA

In my book, Build Your Super-tribe, I describe the most powerful and successful groups of people as being ‘Super-tribes’. They are the most purpose-led, inclusive, united and collaborative form of teams there is. Their togetherness, commitment and alignment sets them apart. On the inside, they have mastered the twenty elements of a modern tribe. And on the outside, they have a collaborative network of partners, alliances and joint-ventures who share their mission. One of the twenty elements is heritage. Every Super-tribe makes its history count, just like the Lakota Sioux.

The other nineteen elements of modern tribes are wide-ranging. They are organisational purpose, structure and hierarchy, rules, nicknames, values, spiritual homeland, language, stories, art, songs, colours/uniform, ceremonies, badges/logos, symbols, brand, routines, opposition, records and fragrance/flavour. These twenty elements are found in different forms and combinations inside any Super-tribe. Every combination of the twenty elements is unique and distinguishes a Super-tribe from every other organisation.

How do the twenty elements reveal themselves? From everything that’s part of, or somehow connected to the tribe. Take an organisation chart for example. That incorporates the elements of structure and hierarchy, nicknames (e.g. job titles) and language (through the terminology used). Another example would be a set of board minutes, which incorporate information about the organisation’s purpose, values, stories, routines (e.g. processes and traditions), nicknames, rules, ceremonies (e.g. promotions and new starters) and opposition (e.g. competitors). The first stage is to cover all twenty bases. The second (and much harder) part is to align all twenty in an inclusive, meaningful and engaging way.

The Lakota Sioux recorded their history by painting the key event of their year onto a Waniyetu, the Lakota word for a year (from first snow to the next first snow). In English, these incredible pictographs are known as a Winter Count. Each year a new symbol was careful painted onto the Waniyetu, to represent the key event of that year. The Lakota Winter Counts included at least nine of the twenty elements of Super-tribes on their own, representing Lakota heritage, stories, art, records, symbols, ceremonies, logos, opposition and routines. Only a hundred or so are believed to exist.

Some Winter Counts contained decades of events. The one in the image* above recorded the events of the Lakota living in the Fort Peck area of Montana from 1800-1871. That’s seventy one years of heritage stories to tell. Not every year was a good one. The red dots indicate years where there were many deaths from epidemics of smallpox, cholera and measles, which the settlers brought with them. This combination of physical and oral storytelling meant the Lakota’s history survived from one generation to the next, prompted by the imagery on the Winter Count.

In modern times, this kind of record keeping is a rarity. Other than transitory emails, board minutes and documents filed at Companies House, many organisations fail to celebrate the stories of their own history. That’s a shame. An organisation’s heritage can have a powerful effect on its present and future. An impactful, inclusive and purpose-led history will help to engage potential customers. It can help to inspire new employees and pull everyone together as a group. Are you making your history count towards your future?

*On show at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. For details see www.centerofthewest.org