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.

Programs Can Take Various Forms...

For more than 30 years I’ve used American Indian tipis as a tool to help students of all ages better appreciate the sophistication of the cultures that lived on the northern plains.


I have set up tipis in schoolyards, at Boy Scout camporees, on state and national historic sites, in public and private spaces, and in museums in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Virginia, and across North Dakota.

Setting up poles for a tipi

I’ve even helped staff understand the process of taking a buffalo hide tipi down as we de-installed the Main Gallery of the Heritage Center in 2013.

When I present a program about the building of a tipi, it usually is a hands-on learning experience. I carry on a conversation with the audience. I ask for their assistance with identifying poles, bringing them to me, and (with my direction) figuring out where to place them.

We tie the poles together, raise and fasten the cover, and then enter the tipi. There is always a sense of awe when one enters a tipi for the first time and raises one’s eyes to the sky.

Children and Erik gathered in a tipi

The tipi is a dwelling created by stretching a cover of canvas or tanned bison hides over a framework of straight wooden poles. The poles are tied together in a specific pattern around a foundation made of three or four poles, depending upon tribal practices. The general form of the tipi is conical. Although the top of the cone of the tipi may be 16 or 18 feet off the ground, erecting it is a relatively easy process.

Setting up a tipi

At the top there is an opening through which rising smoke from a small central fire can escape. Extensions in the cover on either side of this opening can be adjusted depending upon wind direction, creating a relatively pleasant environment inside the structure.

Doug Wurtz, a volunteer with the State Historical Society, has helped me several times as I’ve given tipi raising programs for students or the public. As Doug became more interested, he began to experiment with a 1-inch=1-foot scale model of a tipi. As Doug’s models got more sophisticated, he became interested in the physics and the aerodynamics of the tipi. This led Doug to create a kit called “Tipi in a Box” which has since developed into a prototype that could be used by a classroom teacher to offer learning to their students about the tipi. As Doug and I evaluated the “Tipi in a Box” project, we became aware that teachers would have difficulty using the kit without a narrative to direct them.

Doug and I began the process of developing the narrative by videotaping me describing the kit and its intended use. During that taping we realized that some of the detail, such as how the knots are tied, would be lost without additional video.

Although this project is still a work in progress, Doug and I have learned many lessons related to building a quality educational product. We look forward to continuing this and additional projects that can provide insights into the technologies and lifeways of native peoples.

Museum Recent Acquisitions

The Museum Division of the State Historical Society is offered everything from political buttons to cook cars. The Museum Collections Committee needs to be very selective about what is accepted, since we simply do not have the storage space for everything offered to us, especially large items like pianos and buggies. Here are a few items we have recently accepted into our collection.

1. 2014.00112.00001
Meiers, Vivian
School bell

A school bell is an excellent example of what we normally would not accept due to the size and weight, and the fact that we have examples already. When one was offered from the inundated town of Sanish, however, we could not resist because so much of the town’s history was lost. Sanish was a small western town until 1953, when the completion of the Garrison Dam flooded the town. Before the flood, the donor's father Glen Nelson worked with two others to disassemble the Sanish School House. They took the bricks and the school bell. They remounted the school bell in an enclosed stone structure on the Nelson property from 1953 until just before its donation to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

School Bell

Left: Sanish school bell (2014.00112.00001)
Right: State Historical Society of North Dakota (11140-686)

2. 2014.00118
Whittier, Rick
Spear Fishing Decoys

Rick started making spear fishing decoys shortly after moving to North Dakota in October of 2004. He has progressed to the point of making a full time occupation out of creating these beautiful decoys. Rick has had an exclusive exhibit in the ND Governor's Office, has been awarded MN Carver of the Year and is the 2nd and 3rd place World Points Champion of the National Fish Decoy Association. He has also been featured in the Fargo Forum, Green Sheet, the Wahpeton Daily News, and the Minot Daily News. Rick has also been featured on a number of radio programs throughout North Dakota. In January, 2014, Ron Schara Productions came to his shop and filmed for two days, making three different television programs: Due North Outdoors, Backroads with Ron and Raven and Minnesota Bound, all of which aired in the fall of 2014. Rick works with the North Dakota Council on the Arts as a Master Artist. He instructs apprentices and also holds programs for the Assisted living residents here in ND as well as attending trade shows with the Pride of Dakota.

Fish decoy

Fish Decoy in various phases. (2014.00118)

3. 2015.00017.00001
Solheim, Audrey

The Psalmodikon is a single stringed musical instrument developed in Scandinavia for simplifying music in churches and schools and providing an alternative to the fiddle for sacred music. The instrument could be plucked or bowed. Beginning in the early 19th century it was adopted by many rural churches in Scandinavia, and later immigrants brought the instrument to the United States. As churches raised money to purchase organs, psalmodikons decreased in popularity.


Psalmodikon and bow (2015.00017.00001)