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!

Sitting Bull Exhibit to Explore Hunkpapa Lakota Leader’s Life

A road trip beckons in the not-too-distant future!

We are currently at work on a new exhibition about Sitting Bull for the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center (MYCIC). Located in the northwestern part of the state near Garrison and Williston, MYCIC is an ideal venue to showcase the life of this iconic Hunkpapa Lakota leader.

A Native American man stands wearing a cape over one shoulder, feather behind his head, tan long sleeved shirt with darker cuffs and shoulders. His long, dark hair is in two braids.

Detail of studio photograph of Sitting Bull with hand-painted accents by H.A. Plante, circa 1885.
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The Interpretive Center is a beautiful place—a contemporary facility built at the confluence of two meandering rivers set in a wide valley beside low bluffs. The building faces south with a stunning vista of sky, water, and cottonwood trees. The property has numerous walking paths and is a birder’s paradise. It was a stopping point for the Corps of Discovery on both legs of its famous expedition, and it shares proximity with Fort Buford State Historic Site, a landmark in the story of Sitting Bull.

Outdoor scene as the sun is going down. There are dark clouds in the blue sky and long grass in the foreground. A distant view of a building is hidden among trees.

A bucolic view looking toward the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center.

For the past year and a half I’ve been almost exclusively focused on the production of Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style, so the opportunity to explore a new story and space is a welcome change. The Sitting Bull exhibit takes a closer, more nuanced look at a story I thought I knew.

Indeed, the first lesson this project has taught me is that much of what I previously learned about Sitting Bull was incomplete. But then, when dealing with history, that is often a good starting point. Periodically one finds the need to hit refresh.

For instance, I was well aware Sitting Bull was a significant player in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, and that he later toured with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in the 1880s. Yet his role in both these events was markedly different than I had thought, and the intervening years were a complete mystery. I knew nothing of his early life or his rise as a respected leader. I was ignorant of the fact he and his people moved to western Canada following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. While conducting background research for Fashion & Function, I had discovered his involvement in the Ghost Dance movement of the late 19th century but was completely unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding his violent 1890 death. It is a very different story than I expected.

A very old, tan map of the United States.

Die Vereinginten Staaten von Nord-America by C.F. Weiland, 1831. SHSND SA OCLC59108748

Curator of Collections Research Mark J. Halvorson is our subject specialist for Sitting Bull. The production team also includes multiple members of the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s Audience Engagement and Museum Department, along with Fort Buford and MYCIC Site Supervisor Joseph Garcia and his staff. It’s our own version of “it takes a village.”

Halvorson has assembled a rich collection of objects and images with which to relay Sitting Bull’s story. I am drawn to visual elements, and this exhibition delivers some jewels. We are using an image of a stunningly detailed 1831 map of the United States from the State Archives. It shows the massive, central Missouri Territory and includes information provided by the Corps of Discovery’s expedition. The map, which also notes the many regional tribal groups as well as the position of Fort Mandan, represents the United States at the time of Sitting Bull's birth.

We will also exhibit a dramatic poster from the 2000 U.S. census featuring Sitting Bull’s quote: “I have spoken. I will continue to be heard.” The poster also depicts Sitting Bull’s unflinching gaze and that of his great-great-grandson Ron His Horse Is Thunder (Ron McNeil) to make its point.

Detailed view of a pipe bag with white and yellow beaded trim with white and blue diamonds along the bottom above the trim. White, blue, green, white and blue, yellow, red, white, and blue beaded horseshoes decorate the bag.

Detail of the beaded buckskin pipe bag chronicling the life and accomplishments of Sitting Bull.
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Among the other objects that will be on display is a pipe bag given by Sitting Bull to his friend Bullhead in summer 1883. The bag, while subdued in appearance, is rich in history as it chronicles Sitting Bull’s many accomplishments. It includes a beaded registry of the many horses Sitting Bull captured from his enemies and also memorializes the horse that was shot from beneath him in battle. We are fortunate that Bullhead documented the imagery on the pipe bag before he was killed along with Sitting Bull in 1890.

The exhibition’s future location at the Interpretive Center places it near an important site in the life of Sitting Bull. In 1881, after several years of nomadic existence in western Canada, Sitting Bull and his band returned to the United States, agreeing to settle at the Standing Rock Agency. He surrendered his rifle in the front parlor of the commander’s house at Fort Buford. Fort Buford is part of the MYCIC complex, and the commander’s house is one of the few full structures that remains.

In early June 2021, we will make our way to MYCIC to install the exhibition. It is scheduled to be featured at the site for the next five years. That means you have plenty of time to make the northwest trek, enjoy the scenery, walk the trails, and test your understanding of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull.

Entrance to the exhibition is included in the MYCIC admission fee, as is access to neighboring Fort Buford.

North Dakota State Historic Site Staff Bring Diverse Skill Sets to Job

Historic site supervisors are a varied lot. We have backgrounds not only in history but also in museums, construction, art, and science to name a few. We tend to be quite attached to our historic sites, putting our heart and soul into educating the public about them and ensuring their preservation for future generations. It is not uncommon for visitors to the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, where I am the site supervisor, to ask if I live in the house since I seem so attached to it. No, I do not live in the house, though I live so close I can see my 1890 Victorian house from my office window.

Our hobbies and other occupations tend to intermingle and impact the work we do for our various sites and for the State Historical Society of North Dakota more generally. For instance, multiple state historic site staffers are also teachers and bring the skill of working with young people to their State Historical Society roles. Many staff also have hobbies that benefit their state historic sites with skills in carpentry, model making and textile arts to name a few.

When I’m not at the Former Governors’ Mansion or Camp Hancock State Historic Site, where I am also supervisor, I spend time honing my craft as a professional artist creating light paintings and capturing the night sky with my many cameras. You may have seen my photographs on the web or in publications of the State Historical Society, North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, and North Dakota Tourism.

Our state historic sites are a great place for photography. Two sites I often visit once the sun goes down are Menoken Indian Village and Double Ditch Indian Village not far from Bismarck. Both sites offer great views of the night sky and both have 1930s Depression-era fieldstone shelters that make excellent foregrounds for photography. Of course, I visit other places, too, such as state parks, rural churches, and abandoned buildings—all of these locations tied together by their connection to North Dakota’s history. The opportunity to see and learn about North Dakota through my photography, in turn, makes me a better state historic site supervisor.

A night photo of a stone shelter that's lit from the inside. Next to the shelter is the silhouette of a man sitting on a bench. The sky has streaks of green from the Northern Lights.

The northern lights illuminate the sky over Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site.

A grassy field is shown with swirls of light in the sky.

In “Starry Night on the Prairie,” I created star trails over Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site by taking a few hundred photographs and layering them using computer software. The center of the trails is Polaris (North Star) which sits directly over the axis of the Earth and from our point of view does not move.

Night scene with white and red spiral lights making human like figures and red swirly circles in the background.

My light painting “Night Walkers” is set against the backdrop of the Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site.

Night scene of a stone shelter that's lit inside. Trees can be seen around the shelter as well as a green glow at the horizon from the northern lights and many starts in the sky and a few clouds.

The stone shelter at Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site under a dome of clouds, stars, and the northern lights.

Silhouettes of trees frame the outside of this night shot. Streaks of bright green, blue, and purple can be seen in the lower part of the sky from the northern lights. Many stars can also be seen in the sky.

A magical night at Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site.


Johnathan CampbellGuest Blogger: Johnathan Campbell
Johnathan Campbell has been around the SHSND for around a quarter of a century. He has been the site supervisor for both the Former Governors’ Mansion, and Camp Hancock State Historic Sites for over a decade, and previous to that was the fossil preparator for the North Dakota State Fossil collection.