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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Double Ditch Bank Stabilization Repairs Nearly Complete

Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites preserved on the northern plains. The earthlodge village was a regional trading center occupied for nearly 300 years (AD 1490-1785) by the Mandan people. Due to its archaeological significance, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial view of Double Ditch

Aerial image of Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site taken by SHSND quadcopter – November 2013.

Readers of the State Historical Society of North Dakota blog will likely already be familiar with threats Double Ditch faced from severe erosion caused by the 2011 Missouri River flood (please see blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/an-eye-in-the-sky-for-preservation, blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/saving-double-ditch, and blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/double-ditch-bank-stabilization).

Rotational erosion at Double Ditch

Image of rotational erosion of river bank at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site. Image taken by SHSND quadcopter - October 2016.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota, partnering with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, and other groups and individuals supporting preservation efforts mobilized after the 2011 flood to address this critical threat to the site. Left unaddressed the rotational erosion would have continued, eroding deeply into the village and causing catastrophic damage to the site.

Rotational erosion at Double Ditch

Image of rotational erosion front at Double Ditch from a trailcam that monitored the location from March 2015 - June 2017.

An engineering plan was developed to stabilize 2,200 linear feet of riverbank from the effects of rotational erosion exposing numerous burials at the site since the 2011 flood. The State Historical Society is grateful to the 2013, 2015 and 2017 North Dakota Legislative Assemblies for appropriation of the $3.5 million dollars necessary to move this important preservation project forward.

Monitoring topsoil removal

SHSND archaeologist monitoring topsoil removal by a track hoe during bank stabilization project at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site – August 2017.

Bank stabilization began in July 2017, and was anticipated to last about five months. Prior to the start of construction, it was anticipated that additional burials would be identified. The State Historical Society and MHA leadership cooperated to follow state laws and the cultural practices of the Mandan to complete this sensitive work. Archaeologists from the State Historical Society were on hand daily throughout the construction period to monitor earth moving activities. All exposed burials were cared for according to proper protocol and will be interred in private ceremonies of the MHA nation after repatriation.

Heavy excavation equipment moving soil

An SHSND archaeologist monitors removal of soil by heavy excavation equipment during the bank stabilization project at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site – August 2017.

The engineering plan implemented to stabilize the riverbank involved removing many tons of soil to reduce the weight on the bank slopes at the site. Installation of a rock -filled trench and hundreds of steel pipes vertically driven parallel to the river bank provide mass and strength to further stabilize the slopes.

Trackhoe working to stabilize slope

A trackhoe works to stabilize a slope during the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

Heavy construction equipment installing steel pipe piles

Heavy construction equipment was used to install steel pipe piles parallel to the Missouri river bank during the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. The rock key trench is already installed in this image, buried between the pipe piles and the river bank.

Aerial overview of crews working at Double Ditch

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – August 2017. The two trackhoes in this image are working to install a 20’ deep rock key trench as part of the stabilization plan. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

On a personal note, I’m humbled to have been involved with the bank stabilization activities at Double Ditch. Since 2002 I’ve been fortunate to be involved in archaeological research conducted at Double Ditch, and the site is very special to many people. It’s my belief that all those involved with the Double Ditch bank stabilization were part of a preservation project whose importance and sensitivity can hardly be overstated. Had the funding not been available and the project not been undertaken, the alternative would have been for the site to continue to be damaged and further eroded by the Missouri River.

Employees standing in front of construction equipment

Veit Construction employees Baldomero Castillo (Cabo) and John Fay pose with SHSND archaeologists Paul Picha, Brooke Morgan, Meagan Schoenfelder, and Timothy Reed during a break in the action of the bank stabilization project at Double Ditch State Historic Site – August 2017. (Not pictured: SHSND archaeologists Wendi Field Murray and Fern Swenson.)

The bank has been reshaped and landscaping with native plants was installed in early November. Interpretive aspects will be developed over the winter and installed in early summer, after the vegetation has had a chance to develop.

Arial view looking north of Double Ditch stabilization project

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – November 14, 2017. View is to the south. The dark patch on the landscaped slope marks the area covered with an erosion-control product called filter fabric. Filter fabric is used to help prevent erosion until the area develops heavier vegetation. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

Aerial view looking south of Double Ditch stabilization project

Aerial overview of the Double Ditch bank stabilization project – October 25, 2017. View is to the south. The dark patch on the landscaped slope is a portion of the area covered with an erosion-control product called filter fabric. The location of a non-motorized canoe and kayak access trail is also visible in this image. An erosion-control product called Geo Cell was used in the construction of the trail. Quadcopter image by Dwayne Walker.

Documenting the Peace Corps in Bismarck and Kenya

We archivists have it all--the opportunity to share the spark of discovery with our patrons; the calming scent of old, pungent books; engaging in conversations and debates about historical minutiae; the comforting hum of microfilm as it speeds through the reader; erasing and writing with pencils; and behind-the-scenes access to history. All kinds of history...

So when brand-new, unheard of, undocumented (at least in our collections) historical nuggets come across the radar of our staff, we are surprised and intrigued to say the least. As the one-stop shop for records of North Dakotans and their activities, we are driven to collect these nuggets so they aren't lost.

Entrance to Camp Lewis and Clark

11325-00005 Entrance to Camp Lewis and Clark, Bismarck (N.D.), 1968.

Once such nugget was recently discovered, and we are in hot pursuit of any and all documentation for posterity: in 1968, Camp Lewis and Clark (now the United Tribes Technical College) in BISMARCK was a training site for Peace Corps volunteers who went on to direct agricultural and land settlement projects in KENYA. These recruits came from all over the country, including some of the top universities, and were immersed in rigorous Swahili language training. Swahili is an incredibly complex language, where the subject, object and verb are collapsed, the tense structure is unlike that of the English language, time is treated differently, and there are eight genders. Those are just a few of the nuances that make it an especially difficult language to learn.

Work crew at Camp Lewis and Clark

11325-00006 Work crew, Camp Lewis and Clark, Bismarck (N.D.), 1968.

Kenyan instructors had to devise effective teaching strategies to introduce this brand new language to Americans in a short amount of time. One of the immersion techniques was to ban the use of English from 6 a.m. until midnight. Those caught speaking English during those hours were eliminated from the program.

Lamb barbecue at Camp Lewis and Clark

11325-00007 Lamb barbecue, Camp Lewis and Clark, Bismarck (N.D.), 1968.

In addition, of the young men trained to carry out their responsibilities in Kenya, half focused on agriculture and the other half on establishing cooperative societies. The newly formed Republic of Kenya wanted to populate and use the fertile farmland that had recently been sold back to them by the British government. To this end, the Bismarck trainees honed skills related to range management, engineering, construction of water systems, and many others.

Land cooperative model

11325-00008 Land cooperative model developed by crew at Camp Lewis and Clark, Bismarck (N.D.), 1968.

The three-month training took place in Bismarck, selected by planners because it was remote enough to eliminate distractions, and could also provide a culture shock to prepare the young men for life in a foreign country. One participant from the east coast described the training in Bismarck as an "exotic experience in its own right before we embarked on life in Kenya." The cross-cultural experience went both ways: for many Bismarck residents, the Kenyan instructors were the first African people they had met.

Four boys sitting on fence at rodeo

11325-00010 Alan Johnston with Edgar, Edmund and Larry Fasthorse at the rodeo during his stay at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, 1968

As part of the training, volunteers were sent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to live with families for two weeks. This was intended to provide an introduction to life as a visitor in a different community and culture.
There were several psychologists on staff, observing the volunteers and determining who was fit to move on to perform their duties. Several volunteers either quit the program or were eliminated. The motivations of volunteers varied widely; serving in the Peace Corps deferred, but did not exempt, these men from being drafted into the Vietnam War. One participant remembered sitting with his team in Kenya listening to the lottery numbers being announced over the radio, hoping his number would not be called. Several from the group were drafted and went on to serve in Vietnam.

Group of trainers and volunteers at Camp Lewis and Clark

11325-00011 Trainers and volunteers at Camp Lewis and Clark, Bismarck (N.D.), 1968

Another volunteer remembered the political atmosphere of summer 1968, particularly the politics surrounding protests at the Democratic National Convention. His stay with a family at Standing Rock was memorable, as they watched the protests on television together and discussed their views afterwards.

The participants that I spoke with remember their experiences fondly and vividly. The group maintains contact, and they are celebrating their 50 year reunion next summer. One member is a documentary filmmaker who is currently working on two films: one about the training experience and the other about the Peace Corps time and its context (Vietnam war, Kenya after independence).

The State Archives has worked with the members of the project. We are building a manuscript collection (MSS 11325) to document the unique role that Bismarck played in this international project. The collection currently includes a booklet and syllabus for trainees, as well as photographs taken at Camp Lewis and Clark, Standing Rock, and Kenya. The collection is available to the public, and we are actively seeking documentation to add to help preserve this fascinating story.