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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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!

Do Indians Still Live in Tipis? (and How to Find Answers to Other Questions about Native American Culture)

Working in the Communication & Education Division here at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, I find that a lot of people are looking for sources to learn more about Native American culture and history. However, they often aren’t sure where to start. People are really interested in this part of our state’s story, but often didn’t learn much, if anything, in school. Not that they remember anyway. I like to direct them to the Essential Understandings.

North Dakota Native American Essential Understandings

A graphic rendering of the Essential Understandings found at teachingsofourelders.org.

This is a relatively new resource from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction available through teachingsofourelders.org. This website makes videos and other information available to classrooms across the state. The videos feature elders from each of the reservations in North Dakota being interviewed about tribal traditions, stories, and history. The site also has lesson plans developed and vetted in conjunction with the tribes. The Essential Understandings identify the primary themes that tribes and educators want to make sure to convey to all K-12 students. The idea is to make Native American curriculum integrated into all subjects taught in school from math to music to science and history.

There are also great resources through the North Dakota Studies website where a person of any age or ability can begin to learn about the Native American tribes historically associated with what is now the state of North Dakota. The fourth grade unit for ND Studies is available at ndstudies.gov/gr4/american-indians-north-dakota. The eighth grade curriculum at ndstudies.gov/gr8 is also full of opportunities to learn about thousands of years of North Dakota history, up to the present day. There are also four digitized books covering each tribe that has a reservation based in North Dakota at ndstudies.gov/nd_indian_studies. These are all fantastic resources available free online through ND Studies at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

American Indians of North Dakota book cover

The fourth grade unit on American Indians of North Dakota.

For learners with a more academic interest, the History of North Dakota by Elwyn Robinson is also available free online through the University of North Dakota at commons.und.edu/oers/1. Robinson is thought by many who study North Dakota to be one of the most influential scholars to tackle our state’s history. His interpretation continues to have a huge impact on how we think about the history and culture of North Dakota.

Métis case containing quilt, saddle, and clothing

A display about Métis culture in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples at the ND Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck

We also like to encourage visitors to come and experience the exhibits and programs at the 57 historic sites and museums managed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, sites at a number of state parks, national parks, and the reservations themselves. The United Tribes International Powwow, held annually the first weekend after Labor Day in Bismarck, is an excellent opportunity to learn about the culture and history of tribes from around the country.

Behind-the-Scenes: School Tours of the North Dakota Heritage Center

“My favorite quote from a student this year as she was exiting one of the exhibits was, ‘I love this place.’ Her eyes were wide open and she had a look of pure joy on her face. I bring my students there to be able to have these great experiences.” (Jessica Horst Frohlich, 4th grade teacher at Northridge Elementary)

If you’ve ever visited the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on a weekday in April or May, chances are good that you have seen a swarm of elementary school students and their teachers enjoying themselves. As late spring weather warms up, and the average 5th grader’s thoughts begin to stray from the classroom, we begin to see huge numbers of students and teachers touring the exhibits, learning about the history of North Dakota, and generally having a great time!

Students standing by mastodon

Fifth grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School in Bismarck are welcomed to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum by Becky Barnes of the North Dakota Geological Survey and Timothy Reed of the State Historical Society of North Dakota prior to receiving a behind-the-scenes tour of laboratory and collections areas.

Many staff members here love the heightened activity this time of year brings. We enjoy seeing large numbers of young people in the galleries. These students represent the future of North Dakota; full of potential and curiosity, mindful of our shared history, and eager for opportunities to discover and grow. Translation: you’re likely to find a bunch of kids here ready to learn and have some fun!

We host dozens of school group tours during the last month or so of the academic year. Sometimes we’re able to offer a behind-the-scenes tour of our non-public areas to these visiting school groups. Staff availability doesn’t always allow us to invite every group into our non-public spaces, but when it works out, students can gain a unique appreciation of what it can be like to work in a museum as they visit with staff.

Students in Archaeology Lab

Fifth grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School in Bismarck are given a short introduction to the archeology lab and artifact collections storage areas by Archeology & Historic Preservation Division staff Timothy Reed and Meagan Schoenfelder.

We were recently able to offer this experience to a large number of 4th graders from Northridge Elementary School in Bismarck, and also to a group of 5th graders from Will-Moore Elementary of Bismarck. During their visits, these groups visited the archeology laboratory and collections areas that are normally inaccessible to visitors. They were also fortunate to get a tour of the North Dakota Geological Survey’s paleontology laboratory and collections areas.

I’d like to thank Ms. Horst Frohlich of Northridge Elementary, along with Ms. Wetch and Mr. Schultz of Will-Moore Elementary for bringing their students here, and for helping them engage with North Dakota’s past outside the classroom. I’m glad we could accommodate your requests for a behind-the-scenes tour for your students!

Students in Paleontology Lab

Becky Barnes of the North Dakota Geological Survey describes a laboratory procedures used to prepare fossils to the 5th grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School of Bismarck in the Johnsrud Paleontology Laboratory at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

From July 2016 through June 2017, we welcomed 220,000+ visitors of all ages through our doors. Looking specifically at school groups, we saw 9,294 students representing 56 communities during that same period.  More recent numbers reveal that 4,000+ students visited in May 2018 alone!

With so many visitors concentrating their visits during the end of the school year in April and May, it’s important to also extend an invitation to students and educators to visit during the rest of the school year. Take advantage of all the Heritage Center & State Museum has to offer all year round! If you’re an educator, please consider scheduling an additional trip to the North Dakota Heritage Center during the fall or winter months. Kids are no less curious when it’s cold, and many discoveries await them in our galleries and labs!

Student pointing to relative's picture on display in gallery

A 5th grade student from Will-Moore Elementary School of Bismarck proudly points to a relative’s image displayed in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples at the State Museum.