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.

You Can’t Have It All, But You Can Come Close

It’s a situation most people have encountered, and it goes something like this: “Hey! I need you to complete (insert project of your choice) in a really short amount of time, and by the way, we have little to no budget. Not a problem, is it?” As small non-profits, museums regularly find themselves in this conundrum. In the Exhibits department we call it the holy trinity: fast, cheap, and great. Most of the time, however, you can only reasonably be expected to achieve two.

  • Fast + cheap ≠ great
  • Cheap + great ≠ fast
  • Great+ fast ≠ cheap

Trinity - Fast, Cheap, Great

So what can you do? In the absence of superpowers, we’ve integrated a number of techniques into our daily exhibit operations to help us get closer to the “impossible utopia” of fast, cheap, and great.


Henry Ford’s great success as an automobile manufacturer came from standardizing everything – methods, parts, and tools. As much as possible we have standardized the hardware and material we use in building exhibits. This provides many benefits: eliminates the possibility of error, easier to remember components when designing, and it’s cheaper to buy in bulk. Being more efficient saves resources – time and money – neither of which we ever have enough of.

Reuse and Recycle

It’s not just fashionable to go green, but it saves resources. We always take a look at our existing inventory first and ask, “How can we re-purpose it?” But, if we need to buy something new, we plan for its reuse and buy high quality. The initial expense is made up in its longevity.

KISS (keep it simple stupid)

This applies to so many things, but especially exhibits. We design components to be not only durable but easily fixable – because nothing can withstand a determined five-year-old. Our most utilized designs are ones that we’ve used for years because they have withstood the test of time. We also keep in mind who will be maintaining and repairing the components; the repair has to be within their ability.

Learn from History

It’s okay to stop using something if it doesn’t work, even if it’s been around for years. We have started to consciously plan to our existing resources. It seems self-evident, but checking to make sure an exhibit case will move through a doorway and can be moved by two people saves a lot of heartburn later.

Although these techniques were developed for exhibit production they can be applied to many other areas. Ta Da!

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Like-A-Fishhook Village

This month a journey began into the collections from Like-A-Fishhook Village (32ML2). Why Like-A-Fishhook? And why all the excitement?

An archaeologist on our staff is researching Like-A-Fishhook as part of her dissertation work. So, part of the excitement is getting to look closely at the objects as she inventories and photographs them. Also, as an older collection, the objects are in need of being repacked. The rest of the excitement has to do with the site itself.

Into the 19th century, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples were prosperous traders, hunters, and farmers who lived in earthlodge villages and grew corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers in large gardens along the Missouri River. But in 1837 a small pox epidemic took a large toll on native populations in North Dakota. The loss of so many people during the epidemic, combined with ongoing conflicts with nomadic groups, led the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples to settle together for mutual protection. By 1845 Hidatsa people and some Mandan people had settled at a new village site nestled in a large bend of the Missouri River. The large bend was shaped like a fish hook—which is why the village was called Like-A-Fishhook. The Hidatsa were later joined by more Mandan people, and by 1862 the Arikara people joined the village as well. Multiple cultures, languages, and traditions lived in close proximity in this village, making it very unique. Like-A-Fishhook was the last traditional earthlodge village settled in North Dakota. Situated next to Fort Berthold, it was a home and a hub of trade for people for more than forty years. The US government, however, began encouraging the people at the village to resettle, and by 1889 the village was mostly abandoned.

Most of the objects in our Like-A-Fishhook collection came from the River Basin Surveys. The River Basin Surveys were started as a series of archaeology projects in the mid-1940s sponsored by the National Park Service and coordinated by the Smithsonian Institution. After World War II dam building became a popular method for flood control, but many archaeology sites located on rivers were being destroyed as a result. In North Dakota, many of the early River Basin Surveys attempted to record important places along the Missouri River before they were flooded by the construction of the Garrison Dam. The location of Like-A-Fishhook is now underwater, but several excavations took place at the site before the river flooded it. The artifacts and records from the River Basin Surveys are part of the surviving record of the site.


Left: Some crew members from the Like-A-Fishhook River Basin Survey excavations in July 1954, left to right: Hubert Smith, Jerry Giddings, Fred McEvoy (holding “Fishhook”), Harold Dietsch, Bruce Conner, Alan Woolworth, Ray Wood, Lee Madison, and an un-identified visitor to the site (Photo by Raymond Price, AHP Archaeological Records)
Right: A view of part of the Like-A-Fishhook River Basin Survey excavations in July, 1954. The tents from the archaeologists’ camp can be seen in the left background. (Photo by W.R. Wood, AHP Archaeological Records)

We are now are going through the objects in the archaeology collection to photograph, record, and repack the artifacts in archival materials (in bags and boxes that will not damage the artifacts over time). We have only just started this project, but here are a few of the things that we have seen so far.

One of the first boxes we opened had an elk antler bow fragment in it. I have not seen an elk antler bow before!

Elk antler bow fragment

Elk antler bow fragments (12003.726)

I was excited to see some cloth fragments! Cloth does not survive very well in North Dakota’s climate, so it is not very often that we have any in our archaeology collections. What do you think was made from this cloth material?

Cloth fragments

Textile fragments (12003.258)

There was a small child-sized leather shoe sole. I would like to know who this shoe belonged to and how old he or she was when it was worn.

Leather Shoe Sole

Leather shoe sole (12003.2642)

The first few boxes contained a lot of plant materials. There were many charred corn cobs, plum pits, and squash seeds. Plant remains are interesting because they can show what types of food people were collecting or growing, harvesting, and using or eating.

Plant material

Left: Charred corn cobs (12003.2263)
Middle: Plum pits (12003.258)
Right: Squash seeds (12003.258)

There were also some fish scales, so I am assuming someone enjoyed a good fish dinner.

Fish scales

Fish scales (12003.258)

We have many more boxes of Like-A-Fishhook artifacts to go through, so hopefully I will be able to share some more of the objects that we find in the future!