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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!

Doug Wurtz's blog

Benefits of Volunteering at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum: Making Our Community A Better Place

While doing research for a recent project, I stumbled across a website that proposes that the act of volunteering has numerous health benefits, both physical and mental.

The website goes into specific detail:

  • 76% of people who answered a recent survey indicated that volunteering made them feel healthier
  • 94% said volunteering improved their mood
  • 96% said volunteering enriched their sense of purpose
  • 95% said by volunteering, they were making their community a better place
  • 80% felt they had more control over their mental health and depression
  • 78% said volunteering lowered their stress levels
  • 49% said it helped their career in the paid job market
  • 56% said it helped their careers

Volunteer in the Paleontology Lab

A volunteer at the Paleontology lab working while a tour of students looks on.

According to Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, volunteers are a large part of the agency’s success. She said there are currently more than 200 Heritage Volunteers working statewide at various sites.

Every summer, a Heritage Volunteer recognition social is held at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. In the 2017 program from that event, Claudia Berg, agency director, included the following remarks:

“Each and every one of you brings your life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect, and humor with you when you volunteer … For whatever reason you volunteer, you make a difference to our organization. You give your time generously without expectation of reward … Last year (2017) that time totaled 11,711 volunteer hours. Since the program’s inception in 1981, Heritage Volunteers have donated over 425,764 hours.”

What Claudia didn’t mention is that we volunteers (all 200+ strong) are surely deriving all the benefits detailed in the study quoted above: better moods, sense of purpose, lowered stress levels, and so on.

Volunteers sorting in the Archaeology Lab

Volunteers working in the Archaeology lab.

I can’t validate the numbers in the study cited above, but I can attest to the following perks of volunteering at the State Historical Society:

  • studying dinosaurs with professional paleontologists
  • studying artifacts with professional archaeologists
  • learning research methods from professional archivists
  • learning object preservation from museum preservation experts
  • participating in programs developed by the Communications and Education Division
  • assisting gallery guides with public presentations
  • meeting and interacting with ND Heritage Center visitors from around the world
  • building a personal network of other volunteers with similar interests
  • spreading the word and recruiting other volunteers
  • eating way too many cookies (That should probably be at the top of this list.)

Volunteer working on computer in the State Archives

Erlys Fardal has contributed in excess of 6,500 hours of volunteer time at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.
She is pictured here doing research in the Heritage Center archives division.

I, personally, have had the great satisfaction of logging in excess of 2,000 hours of volunteer time at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. I have been asked numerous times how I became a volunteer and why I continue to do so.

I am a firm believer in the old adage of “use it or lose it.” While there are physical benefits to volunteering at the ND Heritage Center, (it is a healthful walk from the west visitor entrance to the coffee shop on the east side), I became involved because of my interest in North Dakota history and archaeology and the mental benefits of continued study and research after my retirement. I have to admit that the first step was a little scary. I came from a profession far removed from history and archaeology. My early apprehension quickly dissipated after working with staff members. They were willing to share their knowledge and expertise in a manner that was neither threatening nor discouraging. After 2,000 hours, I am just getting a good start.

Volunteer sorting in the Archaeology Lab with the help of a staff member

Volunteer working in the Archaeology lab.

As Claudia mentioned in her quote above, we all come to the State Historical Society with our own “life experiences, skills, abilities, passion and compassion, intellect and humor.” The ND Heritage Center is a great place to enhance all of those qualities. In addition, our moods have improved, our stress levels have diminished, we have contributed to the community, and our experience and knowledge has continued to grow.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, contact Beth Campbell, Visitor Services coordinator, at bcampbell@nd.gov or give her a call at 701-328-2674. She will get you pointed in the direction that most suits you and your skills and passions.

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” (Author Unknown)

Dem Bison Bones

Do you remember your first childhood anatomy lesson?

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…

The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones.”

An internet search shows many variations of this song. The only thing that doesn’t vary is the order of connectivity: toe to foot, foot to ankle, ankle to leg, and so on.

I don’t remember when I first heard this little ditty, but I have always been fascinated by bones. It may have something to do with being born and raised on a farm where I was constantly surrounded by animals and animal bones.

The galleries in the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum provide a perfect venue for the study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures, also known as osteology.

I decided this fall that it would be fun and educational to write a short presentation on basic bone structure. After a couple of false starts, I enlisted the aid of a friend for a Saturday afternoon search and recovery mission for bison bones. That afternoon’s antics would provide enough material for a separate story, but suffice to say we loaded a pickup with dry, weathered bison bones, unloaded them in my garage (to my wife’s dismay), and I began the search for connectivity; toe to foot to ankle, etc.

Internet sites such as “The Virtual Museum of Idaho” made this a fairly easy project. The “American bison” page (UWBM-35536 -- Bison bison) provides full-color, 360 degree views of each bone of a bison’s skeleton.

Rearticulated bison front limb

Rearticulated bison front limb

With the reference site and a garage half-full of bison bones, some assembly was required. As luck would have it, we had acquired all of the bones on our search to rearticulate the left front leg of a bison. The assembled and properly labeled bones don’t lend themselves to a catchy tune, however:

“The third phalange connects to the second phalange,
the second phalange connects to the first phalange,
the first phalange connects to the metacarpal,
Now shake dem bison bones.”

As all projects seem to do, this one grew and began to take on an educational aspect that I had not envisioned when I identified the first weathered “calcaneus” bone. (Check it out on the Idaho Museum site.)

Comparison of human astragalus (talus) and bison astragalus

Slide from “Bison in A Box” presentation

The more bones that I reassembled, the more I realized how the bones of the front leg of a bison resemble and mirror bones of the human arm. A couple of purchases of a human skeletal hand model and human foot model clearly illustrated this. By this time, a Powerpoint presentation was beginning to take shape, and more bison bones began to fit together. With time, a complete hind leg of a bison was also rearticulated and my fascination grew—this time with the comparison between the “wrist” joints of a human and the corresponding “ankle” joints of a bison.

The North Dakota Heritage Center is a perfect venue for this presentation, where comparisons between the skulls of Bison latifrons and Bison antiquus, the ancestors to the modern Bison bison, are on display.

Bison antiquus skeleton

Bison antiquus skeleton, Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples

A full, life-sized model of the Bison antiquus is fully assembled (rearticulated) and helps illustrate the story of Beacon Island in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. You, as a visitor to the exhibit, can hum whatever version of the bone song you prefer as you study this model.

The basic premise of bone identification has continued to evolve since I plucked that first bison bone from the prairie sod. My research has uncovered many uses for one of the newly discovered bones. The astragalus bone (one of the “ankle” bones of sheep, goats, bison, etc.) was used in Mongolian games of chance, was a useful component of friction fire-starting, and was the basis of a child’s game (“jacks”).

Join us at the Heritage Center as we continue to explore this bony topic and finalize our presentation, “Bison in A Box.”

If I could carry a tune a whole new genre of songs could be sung about bison bones:

“Astragalus connected to calcaneus,
Calcaneus connected to the tibia,
Tibia connected to the femur
And on and on it goes.”