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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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!

A People’s History of the Plains: Rad Women and Girls

When I discovered Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States two decades ago, it rocked my world. The stories of Indigenous peoples, women, slaves, and the working class were a revelation beyond the whitewashed textbook history taught in my public high school.

Today’s historians have gotten better about telling stories of the marginalized, though we still have a long way to go to disrupt the dominant narrative written by “the winners.” This is why I’m excited to direct you toward our North Dakota Studies curriculum, specifically to People Living on the Land, which contains primary sources and commentary on the lives of the everyday North Dakotans who shaped our history.

In honor of Women’s History Month — and March Madness, which we’ll get to in a bit — check out five links on North Dakota’s remarkable, but too often overlooked, women and girls.

Women sitting in a field braiding cork

Women braid corn for drying. SHSND 0086-0277

1. Corn farmers
Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara women traditionally handled agricultural production for their tribes. Women grew sunflowers, beans, and squash, in addition to multiple varieties of corn, providing a reliable source of nutrition and wealth.

Two women draw water from a well

Drawing water from a well, used for washing, cooking, cleaning, and bathing, was one of the heaviest chores a woman had to complete. SHSND 2009-P-012-006

2. Hired girls
Among settler families, teenage girls and young women often found work as “hired girls,” helping farm families with the demanding domestic tasks of childrearing and farmhouse life.

A group of women stand in front of a tent that reads FOVES FOR WOMEN LEAGUE (NOVEMBER 3RD 1914)

While campaigning for the woman suffrage law, the Votes for Women League hosted a tent at the 1914 Bottineau County Fair. SHSND 10204

3. Suffragists
As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S. woman suffrage in 2020, it’s enlightening to look back on the women dressed in white a century ago. Even before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, white women in Dakota Territory could vote in local school elections starting in 1883. Native American women fully gained the right to vote, along with U.S. citizenship, in 1924.

A woman stands in front of an old automobile patching the inner tube of a tire

Veronica Brown of Cass County patches the inner tube of a tire circa 1918. SHSND 0032-CS-06-14

4. Mechanics
Women began driving as soon as cars appeared in North Dakota, and even some girls learned to drive, such as 12-year-old Esther Nichol who made deliveries for her father in Souris. During World War I it is likely more women began to work as mechanics since so many men served overseas.

Five women play basketball while a woman stands in the background coaching or reffing

Athletes compete at Bismarck Indian School, an all-girls boarding school. SHSND 11113-73

5. Basketball stars
Enter hoops madness! Girls’ basketball became a competitive sport in the first half of the 20th-century in North Dakota, when girls began playing half-court games in bulky woolen uniforms. Uniforms and skills improved up until girls’ basketball was suspended in 1960. The game was reinstated for North Dakota girls in 1973.

Paleontology Outreach in the 21st Century

One of our key missions in the North Dakota Geological Survey paleontology department is to educate the public about the paleontology of North Dakota. Traditionally this has been done through a number of tried-and-tested methods such as exhibits, tours, and public lectures. However, due to the physical nature of these methods, the people on the receiving end of this outreach are primarily local. While it is very important to interest our fellow North Dakotans, we must reach a larger audience if we want to have a broader impact. Within the last two decades we have added the public fossil dig program as an important, hands-on means of reaching both North Dakota residents and nonresidents, and informing participants of the importance of North Dakota fossils. This program has proven successful, and we are reaching a large audience that includes both local participants and some from as far away as Italy! The public fossil dig program continues to grow and interest people from all over, but it can be hampered by the cost of travel to North Dakota for nonresidents. This is just the nature of the public fossil digs—in order to enjoy the excitement of physically helping us uncover our rich fossil history, you must travel to North Dakota.

Four people digging for fossils

Man in a red shirt sits next by exposed fossil and is digging to reveal more

Public Dig photos from various sites we visited in 2018. Come out and join us! A few spots still remain for 2019, visit 2019ndgspaleodigs.eventbrite.com for more information.

Local news stories are a great way to reach a larger audience without the burden of travel costs on the viewer. However, unless you are watching your television the moment the news story airs and you happen to live within the broadcast range of the news outlet, you might miss it. We have been featured on national television programs such as Dino Autopsy, NASA 360, Prehistoric Predators, and NBC’s Today Show, which is wonderful; but again, if you aren’t tuned in the moment it airs, you might miss it.

The advent of social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and streaming (Facebook Live, Skype, and Twitch) has dramatically increased our opportunities for public outreach. Instead of blasting out information to a general audience, we can distribute our message with surgical precision to those who are really interested, and who will likely share it with other like-minded individuals.

We have started a video channel on Twitch where we post videos on a variety of topics of interest to aspiring paleontologists, young and old. From molding and casting fossils to just chatting about an upcoming exhibit while asking for feedback from viewers, this is a new platform to engage not only a local audience, but potentially a global one. A true benefit of posting videos in this way is they can easily be found and viewed by anyone at any time.

Video thumbnails from Twitch channel

The North Dakota Geological Survey Twitch page showing various videos available for viewing by anyone.

Lastly, we have started using the platform Skype as a way of conducting virtual tours of the vertebrate paleontology exhibits, labs, and collection areas. It also gives members of the public the opportunity to chat with paleontologists. Offering tours and video chats in this way completely eliminates the burden of travel on either party and allows us to reach a much larger audience. Although nothing beats seeing fossil preparation firsthand, watching a video on Twitch may serve to inspire a young person, student, or someone looking to fulfill a bucket list item to visit our great state and discover the fabulous fossils of North Dakota.