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!

David L. Newell's blog

Dakota the Dinomummy: Millenniums in the Making

Dakota the Dinomummy is returning! One of our most popular artifacts has been having a well-deserved rest and a bit of spa time. But in fall 2021 a thoroughly refreshed Dakota will return to the halls of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.

Dakota is a significant part of the region’s fossil record. Discovered in 1999 on a ranch near Marmarth in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, Dakota is an adolescent Edmontosaurus, one genus in a larger group of duck-billed dinosaurs called hadrosaurs. Dakota died in the swampy environment that was ancient North Dakota during the Late Cretaceous epoch, which lasted from about 100 to 66 million years ago. The carcass remained exposed long enough for the skin to dry, then the remains were buried in sedimentary material allowing for the preservation of some of the soft organs and skin. They have since become stone, but their distinctive mass and textures remain. The muscles and tendons are particularly recognizable in the tail section.

stylized illustration of an edmontosaurus

Stylized illustration of an Edmontosaurus.

Dakota’s former exhibit case in the main corridor of the State Museum was disassembled just prior to Thanksgiving 2019. I remember thinking at that time the massive ribcage looked like something that would have appeared on the Flintstones’ holiday table.

Rib cage fossil of dakota the dinomummy, an Edmontosaurus

Dakota’s ribcage prior to returning to the paleontology lab.

After the wall components were removed, the fossil’s two huge stone sections were relocated to the paleontology lab in the basement, where the paleo staff began months of work to expose a larger portion of the fossil for scientific research. However, before the sections could be moved, their wooden frames had to be raised and blocked, and heavy-duty casters added to their undersides. That involved several hardy individuals shimmying under the suspended masses to attach the wheels. Then, once the wheels were in place, moving four tons of fossilized hadrosaur required both a forklift and staff member muscle.

Four men are gathered around working on a large plaster block containing dinosaur fossils

As we moved the second section down the corridor, a little boy observed the action from his perch on a bench. He was wide-eyed. As we rumbled by him, I said, “It’s not every day a dinosaur passes by.”

Three men stand around a large plaster block containing dinosaur fossils as they prep to move it

North Dakota Geological Survey paleontologists Clint Boyd and Jeff Person, along with Chief Preparator Bryan Turnbow, get Dakota ready for its move.

A skid steer pulls a large plaster block containing dinosaur fossils as multiple people walk around the plaster block to help guide it. The back side of mastodon fossil replica can be seen on the left side of the photo

On the move past the front entrance and mastodon skeleton.

While Dakota has been missed, its time away has been very productive. It was thoroughly scanned and a 3D model created. It has also undergone extensive preparation with the removal of more than 2,000 pounds of stone and plaster. Both the preparation and survey processes revealed many insights, especially regarding Dakota’s demise. Those new details remain proprietary pending peer review and publication. But stay tuned: More will be revealed in time.

Dakota’s return will include a new display case and interpretive content. Chief Preparator Bryan Turnbow along with a team of State Historical Society staff and paleontologists from the North Dakota Geological Survey worked closely with Taylor Studios in Illinois to fabricate Dakota’s new environment and update the interpretive text. The full fossil will not be on exhibit. However, extensive work on one of the arms will be showcased on a raised mount, and custom lighting will illuminate special features. New interpretive signage will accompany the display, with references and fresh discoveries that will help make Dakota more relevant and understandable to museum visitors.

A 3D model of dinosaur skin with scales

A 3D model of Dakota’s skin will be included as part of the new installation.

One especially cool feature of the new installation will be a tactile component allowing visitors to touch a 3D model of Dakota’s skin. And much like the young visitor watching the huge dinosaur fossil rumbling down the hallway, for most of us, this will probably be the closest we come to encountering a “real” dinosaur.

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.
SHSND 5356

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.
SHSND 3359

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.