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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!

Amy Bleier's blog

Partnering with People: Oh, the Possibilities!

Partnerships play a very important role at the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND). These may be with individuals like volunteers, researchers, and students or with entities such as museums, schools, private businesses, state and federal agencies, and/or tribal and local governments. One example of a successful and continuing partnership is between SHSND staff and Calvin Grinnell, Tribal Historian and member of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation. Calvin is a longtime member and past president of the agency’s State Historical Board. He has also served on the State Review Board for the National Register of Historic Places.

Calvin works with us on many projects including historical and archaeological research and publications; site visits and interpretation; presentations in various media; and consultation on regulatory review and compliance. Here, I will highlight a few of our collaborative projects.

Visits to archaeological and historical sites are one of my favorite parts of my job. We visit all sorts of sites; some are new to us and others are well known. A few summers ago, Calvin escorted staff to Nightwalker’s Butte, a Hidatsa earthlodge village located in Dunn County. As archaeologists we are able to interpret many things about sites by examining artifacts and features. Working with Calvin provides a different perspective for site interpretation, including knowledge of traditional oral history.

Hiking to Nightwalker's Butte

Hiking to visit Nightwalker’s Butte in Dunn County, led by Calvin Grinnell.

Vicinity of Nightwalker's Butte

The vicinity of Nightwalker’s Butte.

Site visits usually involve a handful of people. However, we reach a broader audience with projects like the documentary, The People of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans. We worked closely with Calvin and other tribal members on the research, interviewing, filming, editing, and production of the video. We found that many folks were keen to share their Mandan history.

People of the Upper Missouri dvd cover

Mandan documentary produced by the State Historical Society of North Dakota in partnership with the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation and the North Dakota Humanities Council.

The largest project the SHSND has undertaken in several decades is the recent expansion and remodel of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. It involved all agency staff. Many tribal members assisted in the planning of all galleries and the new Native American Hall of Honors. Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division staff was most involved in development of the Early Peoples Gallery. Again, Calvin provided assistance with research and planning of the galleries, and served as president of the State Historical Board during building construction and the grand opening. It was a proud moment for all of us!

Calvin Grinell speaking at the grand opening of the ND Heritage Center & State Museum

Grand Opening of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on November 2, 2014. Left to right: Calvin Grinnell, Bismarck City Commissioner Nancy Guy, former First Lady Grace Link, and former ND governors Allen Olson, George Sinner, Ed Schafer, and former governor and US Senator John Hoeven.

Currently, Calvin and Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division staff are researching landscapes of traditional Hidatsa territory. We intend to produce a documentary similar to The People of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans.

Here’s to new and continuing partnerships in the New Year!

What is Historic Preservation?

Documenting, conserving, preserving, and protecting peoples’ stories are at the heart of historic preservation. Some ways to do this are through written and photographic documentation, recording oral histories, and saving historic buildings/structures and archaeological sites. Oftentimes, you will hear us refer to these things as “cultural resources.”

My job as an archaeologist exists because of a law passed by Congress in 1966 called the National Historic Preservation Act (16 USC 470).  In part it reads, “The preservation of our irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.” It created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, State Historic Preservation Offices, the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Historic Landmark Program.

Archaeological Excavation

Excavation of an archaeological site.
Photo courtesy of the North Dakota SHPO

Each state has a State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). The North Dakota SHPO is located in the lower level of the Heritage Center in Bismarck. Our office serves a variety of functions, including developing and maintaining a statewide program—based on state and local needs—that supports and promotes historic preservation. This involves planning to meet challenges unique to our state; advocating for historic preservation policy at state and local levels; and empowering communities, organizations and citizens to action.

Some activities of the North Dakota SHPO:

We are the repository for the documentation of recorded historical and archaeological sites in North Dakota. Part of my job is processing the paper and digital records of these sites. Currently, there are nearly 70,000 site forms on file. The SHPO staff, federal agencies, state agencies, tribal governments, and specialists utilize these records daily.


North Dakota SHPO cultural resources research room at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Photo courtesy of the North Dakota SHPO

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the impact that federally funded or permitted projects will have on cultural resources. At the SHPO, we advise and assist federal agencies in this process, review project design plans, identify cultural resources, and assess and resolve determinations of adverse effect. This process gives a local voice to the federal planning and decision-making process.

The Certified Local Government (CLG) program provides for a voluntary, formal partnership between the local, state and federal governments which establishes a commitment to historic preservation. North Dakota has seven CLGs: Buffalo, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Fargo, Grand Forks, Pembina County, and Walsh County.

Income tax credits encourage private sector investment in the rehabilitation and reuse of historic buildings. The program allows the owner of a certified historic structure to receive 20% of the amount spent on qualified rehabilitation costs as a direct, federal income-tax credit. We review program applications to ensure the work complies with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards.

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) recognizes cultural resources that are considered important in the past and worthy of preservation. We write and solicit nominations to the NRHP. Listing in the NRHP puts no restriction upon a private property owner, who may alter or dispose of their property in any way they wish without any prior approvals. Listing in the NRHP does help protect cultural resources from potentially harmful federal actions.

Alan & Gail Lynch

Alan & Gail Lynch at the Lynch Knife River Flint Quarry National Historic Landmark dedication.
Photo courtesy of the North Dakota SHPO

Awareness and application of historic preservation programs enhance our community identity, increase economic development, and provide a local voice in federal undertakings. We are planning events in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. We hope you will join us.

See preservation50.org for events across the United States.