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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!

Guest Blogger's blog

Intrigue Behind a Sitting Bull Painting: The Little-Known Story of Artist Caroline Weldon

Sometimes the curious, behind-the-scenes stories of museum artifacts are as intriguing as the actual pieces. In the little-known story of a painting of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull hanging in the State Museum, the art, the subject, and the artist all share remarkable roles.

Painting of sitting bull with tear in it

Sitting Bull portrait by Caroline Weldon 1890 (SHSND 12319)

I’ve walked past this 1890 oil painting of Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Iyotanke, hundreds of times during my museum career. I’ve squinted behind the glass case at the amateur painting and the scrawled signature of “C. S. Weldon” with no recognition. It wasn’t until artist Caroline Weldon (December 4, 1844–March 15, 1921) became the celebrated protagonist of the 2018 motion picture Woman Walks Ahead that I—and many of our museum visitors—learned the fascinating story of this unusual woman’s courage and determination.

Woman Walks Ahead is loosely based on Weldon’s life from 1889 to 1891, when she traveled twice from her East Coast home to Standing Rock Indian Reservation as an activist to help Sitting Bull and additional tribes resist US government proposals to break treaties. Her lifelong fascination with Native American culture had begun in her teen years, and her passion for Indigenous justice led her to later join the National Indian Defense Association. As a single woman in her forties, she traveled to meet Sitting Bull at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which crossed the borders of North Dakota and South Dakota.

1889 Treaty Map

Breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation, North Dakota Studies (ndstudies.gov)

When she arrived, Weldon served in unofficial capacities as Sitting Bull’s translator and lobbyist, and even lived in his household for a time. An amateur artist, she also painted up to four portraits of Sitting Bull. Her life choices were rare both in terms of 19th-century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era, and the tribe gave her the name “Woman Walking Ahead.”

Catherine Weldon and another lady outside with a house and trees in the background

Caroline Weldon, later in life (SHSND 21405 00002)

Not everyone appreciated Weldon’s efforts. Her unconventional Indigenous rights campaign as a single, white, outspoken woman of the late 1800s created a national stir. Criticized by many, Weldon was unjustly vilified in headlines nationwide.

Weldon left the reservation just weeks before Sitting Bull’s death and became a footnote in history. Her painting was hanging in Sitting Bull’s cabin on Dec. 15, 1890. On that morning a gunfight broke out when Indian agency police came to arrest him, and Sitting Bull and others were killed. Shortly afterward, a police officer whose brother had just been killed smashed the painting with his rifle, tearing the canvas. US Cavalry officer Matthew F. Steele stopped further destruction, took the painting, and later purchased it from Sitting Bull’s widows for two dollars. 1

Closeup of tear in Sitting Bull painting

The canvas was damaged when smashed by a rifle.

Steele’s purchase apparently went unnoticed. In a few scattered mentions about Weldon’s painting over the following decades, historians muse about this painting and her others as being missing. A 1964 article in The West refers to Weldon’s painting as “a picture, now lost, bearing the artist’s sketched initials in the bottom left corner.” 2

I can only guess that State Historical Society staff must have been unaware of the handful of historians still speculating about the painting’s whereabouts, because Weldon’s canvas, with a crudely repaired tear and a replaced frame, had been gifted to the State Historical Society by the Matthew F. Steele estate in November 1953. In a North Dakota History article of 1984, a staff member wrote about the Steele donation: “The location of the only one of Weldon’s Sitting Bull portraits is now known.” 3

Our Caroline Weldon painting can be viewed on exhibit at the State Museum, and a second Weldon painting of Sitting Bull is housed at The Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.

Portrait of Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull by Catherine Weldon, 1890, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock, Arkansas

Woman Walks Ahead mentions our State Museum as the location of a Weldon painting, which created a flurry of national interest in her work. We’ve enjoyed welcoming visitors from across the country who have come to view it since the film’s release.

Man and two young girls standing in front of Sitting Bull painting

After watching Woman Walks Ahead with their dad, these two Florida girls requested a family vacation to North Dakota to view Caroline Weldon’s Sitting Bull painting. The family made the trip a few months ago.

It’s fitting that this misunderstood woman, lost in history, is finally having her day in the sun. Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as a courageous activist who sought to build cross-cultural friendships and implement positive national changes while knowing her actions would rankle some and infuriate others. I’m enjoying seeing the increased visitor traffic to respectfully view Weldon’s special painting and learn more about a controversial time in our nation’s history. And I’ve gained a deeper appreciation, not only of a piece of art, but of the remarkable artist behind the story.

1 “Catherine Weldon, Sitting Bull,” North Dakota History 72, nos. 3 & 4 (2005): 12.
2 “Was Mrs. Weldon Sitting Bull’s White Squaw?,” The West, October 1964, 67.
3 Robert C. Hollow, “Portrait of Sitting Bull by Caroline Weldon,” North Dakota History 51, no. 2 (Spring 1984): back cover.

Guest Blogger: Kim Jondahl

Kim JondahlKim is Director of the Communications & Education division. She oversees the division's programming, serves as the primary media contact, oversees branding strategies, writes and edits marketing and educational pieces, and coordinates partnerships with outside organizations.

Keeping Track of Stuff

Documentation and housing are integral to museum collections work, and they make up a large part of my project as an intern at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Last year during a storm, the roof was damaged at one of the State Museum’s offsite collections storage facilities, known as Storage East. During the recovery activities, the collections team noted that most of the objects in the facility had poor documentation, lacked current photographs, and were in need of cleaning and rehousing. That’s where I come in.

My job is to update the information we have about objects housed at Storage East. Most of the objects stored there are furniture: bookcases, desks, chairs, trunks, and the like. Big stuff. Stuff that’s mostly made of wood, glass, and metal, and used to furnish exhibits and tell stories. But the records we have for them are outdated or incomplete. For example, we have a large collection of trunks, and for a few of them their documentation has the word “trunk” with no further description. This sparse documentation doesn’t do us much good if we’re trying to find a specific trunk and have no idea what it looks like. My task is to write a more thorough description of the objects’ materials, color, dimensions, and style.

person wearing gloves measures the width of a shopping cart

Measuring the dimensions of a shopping cart at Storage East.

I also need to conduct a thorough analysis of each object’s condition. Does it have any cracks? Any peeling varnish? Is the color faded? Or maybe the object is in great condition, almost as flawless as the day it was made. It’s my job to update this information, so we can track any future changes to the object, whether through another disaster or general deterioration.

laptop on a rolling stand sits amongs large artifacts

Creating a movable workstation while updating documentation.

When the object has been described, photographed, and labeled, it is easier to track as it moves from storage to exhibit, or even from storage room to storage room. For example, while working my way through one of the rooms, I found a lampshade. The shade had no object number, and there were no shadeless lamps in that room. I made a note of it, and a few rooms later, I found a lamp without a shade. By checking the photo in the lamp’s file, I was able to verify that the shade belonged to it, and reunite them. Without the previous documentation of the lamp, the objects would have stayed separate, making it difficult to use the lamp for exhibits or research.

room with striped walpaper and many artifacts

The separated lampshade is on the blue box, marked with orange flagging tape as a disassociated object.

gray lamp with silver lamp shade and light green lamp with tan lamp shade

Left: Original documentation photo of lamp. Right: Photo of the reunited lamp.

When I’m not describing the collections, I’m finding new ways to house them. Most of the objects have been stored on wood pallets, which is a good start. Museum objects should not sit directly on the floor, in case of flooding and to avoid any damage. Yet objects need additional protection from roof leaks and potential falling debris. Part of my project has been to research shelving options for the storage facility. I am using floor plans to measure how many shelving units we can fit into each room, using as much of our space as possible.

The progress on this project has been slow but significant. I’m always delighted when I locate a missing object or reunite pieces, and it’s a great feeling to do everything I can to make sure they will not be lost again. There’s a lot to do, but the project will help future collections staff, whether it’s through documentation, preparing for shelving, or dusting the objects. It all helps preserve these objects for the future.

Guest Blogger: Elise Dukart

EliseElise Dukart is a Collections Intern in the Audience Engagement & Museums division of the SHSND. She is working on a documentation project at Storage East, and also catalogs collections, assists with exhibit development, prep, and installation as well as other collections and registrar projects. She originally hails from Wibaux, MT and is working toward her M.A. in Heritage and Museum Sciences at Texas Tech University.