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!

Meagan Schoenfelder's blog

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: On-A-Slant Village

We are currently* working on rehousing and photographing artifacts from On-A-Slant Village (32MO26) with the volunteers in the archaeology lab. On-A-Slant was a Mandan earthlodge village. It was lived in for more than two hundred years, until the late 1700s. If you visit Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan, you can still see the village site.

Here are just a few of the artifacts from On-A-Slant that the volunteers have helped photograph and repack so far.

The bone tools really inspired this project—there is a wide variety of types of artifacts—fishhooks, beads, gaming pieces, fleshers and grainers for working hides, awls for leather work, hoes for gardening, and much more. A researcher visited last year to examine this collection. It is always exciting when a researcher visits, because it gives us a chance to explore our collections in depth. So when the researcher was done, Division Director Fern Swenson suggested we start photographing the artifacts from On-A-Slant and repack them in archival materials.

collection of bones with a size ruler

Just a small selection of the many different bone artifacts from On-A-Slant Village. Top Row: bison scapula hoe; Middle Row, left to right: fishhooks, antler projectile points, elk tooth pendants, tube beads; Bottom Row, left to right: awls, hide grainers, bracelet fragments (SHSND AHP 83.442.13.36; 83.442.21.2, 5-6, 11-13, 16, 32, 35; 83.442.42.5, 13; 83.442.19.1-2; 83.442.41.23-25, 41-45, 53-55, 72-73, 143; photos by David Nix)

There is large quantity of pottery from On-A-Slant, and the sherds also show a lot of diversity—from solid thick pieces to thin delicate sherds. This medium-sized example is just one of many beautiful rim sherds.

pottery shards

Volunteer David C. repacked this sherd from On-A-Slant (SHSND AHP 83.442.4.1272)

There are cord impressions along the top edge and around the neck. The lower part of the sherd (the shoulder) has incised zigzags. The pattern work on this vessel is amazingly straight and even—the potter had a very skilled and steady hand.

pottery shard detail

Here is a close-up of the evenly made lines on the same sherd as above (SHSND AHP 83.442.4.1272)

Like many other village sites in North Dakota, there are also a lot of chipped stone tools. Scrapers don’t always get a lot of attention—they are a very common kind of tool. Scrapers were used for processing hides and skins for clothing, blankets, shelter, and more. However, the sheer number of scrapers from On-A-Slant demonstrates the importance of hide processing—there are thousands of scrapers from On-A-Slant. These represent a lot of hard work. Can you imagine scraping off an entire bison hide using these?

collection of scrapers

These are just a few of the thousands of scrapers that David Nix has generously photographed for us (SHSND AHP 83.442.86.601-620, 1451-1460, 1481-1500, 2011-2020; photos by David Nix)

We have not handled very many metal artifacts from On-A-Slant so far. This small bell is one of the few metal items we have repackaged. If you look closely, you can see a piece of leather still carefully tied around the bell’s suspension loop.

Metal bell

Volunteer Steve found this bell--complete with a leather strap tied around the loop. Both Steve and I think this is an interesting artifact because leather doesn’t survive very well in North Dakota, so we don’t see it very often in our archaeology collections (SHSND AHP 83.442.92.90)

Many (many!) thanks to all the volunteers who have dedicated so many hours to working on this project so far: Diane, David C., David N., Janet, Marshall, Mary, Michelle, Mikayla and Mikaylah, Sandra, Susan, Steve, and Wendy.


*Due to the current Covid-19 situation, volunteering is temporarily on hold. However, if you are interested in joining us when we resume, please let us know! Contact Visitor Service Coordinator Beth Campbell (bcampbell@nd.gov), a copy of the volunteer application form can be found at https://www.history.nd.gov/pdf/volunteerformonline.pdf.

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Squash

Pumpkins seem to be everywhere this time of year — jack-o’-lanterns in October, pies in November, and flavored lattes in coffee shops all the way through the new year. What we call pumpkins in the United States are squash. And while the current pumpkin-flavored options might be new and trendy, squash are not new to North Dakota.

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people living along the Missouri River have grown squash for a very long time. The northern plains are not the easiest place to grow things — winters are long and cold while summers are usually short, hot, and dry. But Native gardeners developed and grew squash that survive in this climate. Traditional kinds of squash come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.

three pieces of yellow squash

Replicas of traditional varieties of squashes grown on the northern plains, left to right: Omaha pumpkin, Arikara winter squash, Mandan-Arikara green and white squash (SHSND 841.2, 37, 22). These are on exhibit in the State Museum’s Innovation Gallery.

Many of these squashes are still grown today, like these Arikara winter squashes.

two squash, yellow and green

A winter variety of Arikara squash I grew in my garden this year

Traditionally, women grew squash in large gardens. Squash was an important food crop along with corn, beans, and sunflowers.

illustration of two native american woman preparing squash

Two women and a child processing squash together — detail from the cyclorama of Double Ditch Indian Village in the State Museum’s Innovation Gallery. (Original art by Rob Evans)

Some squash was eaten fresh. Dried squash was used in soups, stews, and other dishes. Squash was cooked many ways — boiled or steamed in a pot, roasted in the ashes of a fire, or boiled with other ingredients like squash blossoms, fat, beans, or cornmeal. Squash seeds could be boiled, parched, or roasted. Squash blossoms were also used in dishes either fresh or dried.

A lot of squash was prepared for winter food. In these photos, Owl Woman shows how squash was cut and prepared for the winter.

black and white photo of a native american woman harvesting squash

Owl Woman demonstrates four steps for squash preparation. First, slice the squash into rings using a squash knife. (Photo by Gilbert Wilson, SHSND SA 0086-0332)

Native american woman harvesting squash - photo 2

Second, after the squash are sliced, began stringing the slices on a spit. (Photo by Gilbert Wilson, SHSND SA 0086-0340)

native american woman stringing sliced squash

Third, finish stringing the squash slices. (Photo by Gilbert Wilson, SHSND SA 0086-0339)

Hanging up squash to dry

Finally, hang the squashes on a rack to dry. (Photo by Gilbert Wilson, SHSND SA 0086-0326)

The squashes were sliced with squash knives typically made from bison scapulae (shoulder blades).

bison scapula bone used as a squash knife

A bison scapula squash knife fragment from Larson Village (32BL9). (SHSND AHP 2013A.19, F26, south half).

Squash were used for other purposes too. Some squash seeds were saved to plant the next year.

Squash seeds

Squash seeds from Like-A-Fishhook Village (32ML2). (SHSND AHP 12003.258)

Squash leaves could be used as disposable spoons. At harvest time young girls would sometimes pick out squashes to use as dolls.