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!

Guest Blogger's blog

Learning from Historical Rabbit Holes: Iron Horn, an Awl, and a Deeper Understanding of the Past

As a security officer, I have logged many miles patrolling the galleries at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. During these daily patrols, I challenge myself to focus on the depth of information selective items represent. Much like the title character of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I believe it is only by journeying down historical rabbit holes and digging deeper into the past that I can comprehend its significance and contemporary reverberations.

Along the north wall of the State Museum’s Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today, you will find a small picture of a Hunkpapa Lakota gentleman who was born around 1830. His anglicized name is Iron Horn. The story of Iron Horn and his siblings reflects the tragic choices forced on northern Plains people in the mid-to-late 19th century. Iron Horn’s family was divided over whether to accommodate Euro-American migratory pressure. Three of his brothers defied the U.S. government mandate that they retire to a reservation, joining up with Sitting Bull and fleeing to Canada after the Battle of the Greasy Grass. One of those brothers was Rain-in-the-Face; he would be mythologized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Revenge of Rain-in-the Face.” Iron Horn and two other brothers stayed on the Missouri River and became leaders in varying capacities on the Standing Rock Reservation. Ironically one of the Standing Rock brothers, Sgt. Charles Shavehead, was killed while on duty as a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) policeman during the arrest of Sitting Bull. Theirs was a family torn apart by the untenable choices they were forced to make.

A native man sits wearing traditional attire with long, braided hair and a peace pipe in his hands

The story of Iron Horn, pictured in 1872, and his siblings reflects the tragic choices forced on northern Plains people. SHSND SA B0299

Associated with Iron Horn is an awl, used by his wife Ina. It is easy to pass by the small display featuring Iron Horn, his wife, and her awl; I am sure many visitors to the State Museum do so. But for the analytical observer willing to invest time and a systemic approach to understanding the relationship among Iron Horn, the loss of traditional and religious values, and his wife’s awl, deeper revelations about our own existence and its impact on others may be discovered. This small exhibit kindled my interest and provided a conduit to further explore what might appear at first glance to be a negligible implement.

According to a journal article in Plains Anthropologist by Linea Sundstrom, the awl represented much more than a leather tool. As such, the transition from bone awls to using the metal type of awl housed in the Inspiration Gallery represented a significant shift in Lakota religious and ceremonial tradition. On the surface, this change was based on technological improvements. However, lost in the “technological advancement” was the cultural and religious significance tied to the bone awl.

For Lakota women, the bone awl was imperative to actualizing physical (womanhood), spiritual (visions), and pragmatic (production) aspirations. The act of sharpening bone awls created rock art, which was associated with female coming of age, played an important role in attaining visions, and ultimately created a useful tool for beadwork and other endeavors. The Iron Horn awl on exhibit in our museum was repurposed from “an old knife.” The adoption of metal technology, in effect, diminished the awl’s role as a transcendent cultural symbol for the Lakota and led to a significant loss of customs and religious heritage.

On the left are 6 bone awle and to the right is one metal awl

The transition from bone awls, left, to metal awls impacted the tool’s significance in Lakota religious and cultural life. This metal awl, right, was made by Iron Horn and used by his wife, Ina. SHSND 86.226.13798, 92.2.22, .24, .21, .25, 15600.62, 1982.285.31

This historical shift has often been explained in an ethnocentric manner by Euro-Americans. But by re-examining the broader cultural context behind such shifts, I have acquired a better understanding of the dynamic and multifaceted nature of historical discovery, as well as an appreciation for the awl’s importance to Native American women. Likewise, by understanding the fractured structure of Iron Horn’s clan, I gained insight into contemporary issues which impact both Native American communities and the U.S. political landscape.

Ultimately, I have found investigating historical rabbit holes can help bring about an enlightened understanding of lives lived. Exploring different cultures and perspectives of the past contributes to a shared contemporary understanding of who we are and how our various identities, in turn, shape our communities.


An adult man who is bald and wearing black glasses poses next to a bearGuest Blogger: Keith Smith

Originally from Southern California, Keith Smith moved to Bismarck in 2017 to be closer to his grandkids, following significant stops in Phoenix, Arizona, and Logan, Utah. He became a security officer at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in spring 2019 and is currently pursuing a master’s in U.S. History from Fort Hays State University. He has been married for 40 years and graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s in social science.

If Maps Could Talk: Getting “In Touch” with the Peace Garden State’s Past

Hello! My name is Anna, and I am a history major and theology minor at the University of Mary. I have been living in North Dakota for the past three years and am loving every second of it. Since March 2021 I have worked as a library processing intern at the State Archives. It's an amazing job. As a library processing intern, I have had the chance to take on a range of projects, such as processing journal articles and magazines as they come in, changing call numbers on books, barcoding, scanning, and reshelving map collections.

So far, the map collection project has taken up much of my time here. At first, I didn’t think it would be that fun or interesting—just time consuming! Although certainly time consuming, once I got stuck into the project I realized it was also exciting and interesting. One of my favorite aspects of this project has been handling North Dakota and Dakota Territory maps from the 19th century onward, of which there are many. When I first started working with the map collection, I did not expect to handle maps that were over 100 years old. Each time I pick up one of those maps I wonder about its history, where it came from, where it has been, and what it saw. If only these maps could talk, the stories they would tell!

Map of North Dakota in 1889

This map, which was detached from an unidentified atlas, is one of many I have scanned. It has a probable publication date of 1889, the year North and South Dakota became the 39th and 40th states. SHSND SA OCLC06545539

When working with the large map collection, we begin by bringing down a stack of maps that needs to be scanned and entered into the system, typically any maps older than the 1920s. After the maps have been scanned, I crop them in Photoshop, leaving a thin line of black space to frame each map. From there the scanned maps are uploaded into the system, making them digitally preserved for easy access in the future. Then the original maps are placed in large folders and barcoded according to the accession numbers on each of the maps. Once the barcodes are put on the folders, the folders are brought upstairs to be reshelved in their respective places.

a computer looks tiny sitting next to a very large scanner

I spend a lot of quality time with this computer and scanner.

I may not be a North Dakota native, but I have loved learning more about the Peace Garden State through its maps, the names of current and former towns, and the changing boundaries of its counties. Each map tells a unique story depending on who made the map, when it was made, what materials were used, the purpose of the map, and so on. These various pieces help us to more fully understand the history of the map and the place it represents.

Williston Land Company map of North Dakota

Facts About North Dakota from the back of a map

Front and back view of a 1906 map produced by the Williston Land Company. Intended to promote North Dakota to prospective buyers, it is one of a handful of maps this old in our collection with information on both sides. SHSND SA OCLC757386209

I am very lucky to be interning at the State Archives and am grateful to the University of Mary for giving me the tools necessary to take advantage of this opportunity, which has enriched my understanding of my chosen discipline and will no doubt help me in my future career. In addition to learning about maps, I have also become familiar with the system used by the Archives’ library to organize and keep track of books, maps, journal articles, and other items. I was not sure at first what this internship would entail, but I have learned so much from everyone I have encountered at the Archives. When I leave, I will depart with knowledge I will use as I go forward in my life and career.


A young woman with below the shoulder, semi-curly, dark hair smiles at the camera. She's wearing a white shirt with red flowers.Guest Blogger: Anna Hobbs

Anna Hobbs is a library processing intern in the State Archives. Originally from Osceola, Wisconsin, she is a history major (with a minor in theology) at the University of Mary in Bismarck and will graduate in December 2021. Previously, Hobbs earned an associate degree in early childhood education from Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) in New Richmond, Wisconsin.