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.

A Capone in North Dakota

I love stories about the Depression-era gangsters, bootleggers, and crime bosses of Chicago and New York City, but they are rarely something I get to research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Imagine my surprise when I was shown this photo below of James Vincenzo Capone, eldest brother of infamous gangsters Al, Frank, and Ralph Capone, in our Frank Fiske photograph collection. Taken at Fort Yates, North Dakota, it shows James Capone, who by then was known as Richard James “Two Gun” Hart, surrounded by confiscated liquor stills. Immediately I had questions: How did a Capone brother end up in North Dakota as a Prohibition agent? And how did this photo come to be taken by the early 20th-century photographer Frank Fiske? I began searching through our newspaper holdings as well as the vital records available on to learn more.

A man wearing a button up shirt, suspenders, bowtie, hat, slacks, and boots stands holding a gun in one hand while the other end of the gun is on the ground between his feet. Behind and around him are many bottles and jugs.

Richard James “Two Gun” Hart (born James Vincenzo Capone) with his collection of confiscated stills, 1926. SHSND SA 1952-00088

I soon found out that this Capone had immigrated in 1893 with his parents to the United States where the rest of his eight siblings were born. At age 16 James left New York to make his life out West, choosing to distance himself from his Italian heritage by eventually changing his name to Richard James Hart. He married Kathleen Winch in 1919 and worked as a Prohibition agent in the western Plains states.

Meanwhile, Frank Fiske was born in 1883 at Fort Bennett, Dakota Territory, and grew up around Fort Yates. He learned photography from S.T. Fansler at Fort Yates and though still a teenager took over the studio after Fansler left town in 1900. Fiske would continue to work out of Fort Yates, save for a few brief periods, until his death in 1952. While Fiske was best known for his portraits of Native Americans, the true relevance of his photographs comes from his documentation of everyday life at Fort Yates and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

A young man with short dark hair sits posing for the cameran in a white collared shirt, dark colored tie, and dark colored suit jacket.

Photographer Frank Fiske in 1910. SHSND SA 1952-00111

As former Photo Archivist Sharon Silengo has noted of his legacy: “Fiske produced pictures of the life that the Sioux of the Standing Rock Reservation really lived—they were involved in celebrations when allowed by the government agent, they competed in rodeos with other cowboys, they performed in bands on instruments that they were taught to play in their boarding schools, and they married in the white way including wearing the garb of a fancy wedding dress and dress suit, not their traditional dress that would have been worn in the past. These are photographs of the reality of life for Indians.”

Five men stand outside around many bottles and jugs of varying sizes.

From left, John Brought Plenty, Jersey Grey Bear, Francis Mossman, Eugene D. Mossman, and Richard Hart with confiscated stills and liquor, 1926. SHSND SA 1952-01623

While we don’t know much about their relationship, Fiske and Hart’s paths crossed when Hart was a special agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working alongside Fort Yates Superintendent Eugene D. Mossman to confiscate illegal stills and liquor in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and surrounding areas. In January 1926, the Sioux County Pioneer reported that a series of raids on the reservation conducted by Mossman netted “many victims besides a lot of evidence and other paraphernalia.” Hart and officer Jersey Grey Bear picked up farmer Frank Slawa and “confiscated a five gallon jug of moonshine.” One of these raids was reported to have resulted in the removal of 25 gallons of alcohol from the reservation. Due to his skills, Hart was described by the paper as “a most crafty enforcement officer.” Fiske’s photographs make it clear just how much was confiscated in such a short period of time.

The photographs taken of the raid spoils and officers also shed light on one facet of the reservation life that Fiske would spend his life documenting. The photos preserved these events and speak to the impact Prohibition had on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Interestingly, according to records in Fiske’s business ledger, Hart purchased 12 postcards of these photographs of him for a total of $5.00.

A young man in a cowboy hat, neck bandana, boots, and long sleeves and pants stands holding a hand gun with one leg perched on a bench. There is a gun holster around his belt. Behind him is a backdrop with at least three tipis and some flowers.

Hart poses with a Colt .45-caliber revolver. SHSND SA 1952-06187

As for Hart’s efforts to keep his identity under wraps, a year before his death in 1952 his secret as a Capone was revealed to the nation when he was subpoenaed to appear before a jury in his brother Ralph’s tax evasion case. Fiske also passed away in 1952, and one can’t help but wonder what he might have thought about the revelation or if he already knew?

The World of S.D. Nelson: A New Collection Inspires an Upcoming Exhibit

We are always fortunate when a new object enters the museum collection with a fantastic story attached. The recent donation of the S.D. Nelson Collection came with a whole series of stories attached—in fact, the contents of the collection revolve around the art of storytelling.

S.D. Nelson is a prolific, award-winning writer and illustrator. Since 1999 he has produced a series of 12 children’s books and collaborated on an additional seven books focused on the cultural heritage of Native American communities.

A registered member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a descendant of the Hunkpapa Lakota, Nelson spent childhood summers visiting his grandmother at Fort Yates, where he learned about his family’s cultural heritage. His mother, Christine Rose Gipp (Elk Tooth Woman), was a gifted storyteller who inspired him from a young age with tales and traditional lore of his tribe.

In a recent conversation I had with Nelson, he reflected on how the summer visits also exposed him to the shared community trauma that stemmed from reservation life and the disruptions inflicted by the American Indian boarding schools. He noted as an adult looking back on those painful childhood experiences that much of the trauma and many of the issues remain and have intensified, often with tragic results.

A dark haired man with a goatee who is wearing a blue and white pinstripe shirt stands holding an axe that doubles as a tobacco pipe

Writer and illustrator S.D. Nelson delivers his collection to the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in summer 2021.

Nelson’s father, Thurston D. Nelson, was of Scandinavian descent and a career military officer. The family moved constantly following new postings, and S.D. and his three siblings were exposed to a broader world beyond the Standing Rock Reservation. Nelson would eventually graduate from high school in Fargo. His interest in art led him to complete the art education program at the University of Minnesota Moorhead. His professional career evolved as an art educator in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Nelson views his children’s books as an extension of his advocacy for children’s education. He is a cofounder of Read@Home, an organization promoting literary opportunities for preschoolers in Native American communities. He is a popular lecturer and was profiled on an episode produced by Prairie Public in 2010.

Last summer, Nelson visited the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck to deliver a selection of artwork, documentation, and objects relating to his publications. In all we received 135 objects, including original paintings, sketches, colored pencil drawings, printer’s proofs, and handcrafted traditional objects made by the artist.

The collection arrived as we were developing the graphic design and interpretation for the Sitting Bull exhibition currently on view at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. As luck would have it, one of Nelson’s children’s books—which is well represented in the donation—is “Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People.” We eagerly incorporated several of his illustrations into the interpretive layouts and included one of his original acrylic paintings in the section exploring Sitting Bull’s contemporary legacy.

The top painting shows a Native American man holding a bow and arrow and another running with a spear. The bottom painting shows a group of three Native American men (one with red skin, one with blue skin, and the other with tan/yellow skin) are shown in running poses, and another man more in the foreground is also shown running.

Two illustrations from S.D. Nelson’s 2015 book “Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People.” SHSND PAR-2020082.55

In this paining, a native american man is shown comforting a dead bison with multiple arrows in it

Sitting Bull killed his first bison at age 10. “Buffalo Brother” shows Sitting Bull thanking the bison for giving up his life. SHSND PAR-2020082.56 

The new donation also includes materials relating to Nelson’s first publication “Gift Horse: A Lakota Story” and his 2012 book “Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story.” “Buffalo Bird Girl” is a retelling of the landmark narrative provided by Buffalo Bird Woman (Waheenee, 1839-1932) to ethnographer Gilbert L. Wilson, and whose subsequent publication in 1921 provides much of the primary research documenting traditional Hidatsa lifestyles and agricultural practices. Nelson’s book focuses on Buffalo Bird Woman’s childhood, thus the age shift in the title.

A man wearing a blue and white short stands holding a beaded pouch that he is showing a young woman in a gray short and maroon skirt.

S.D. Nelson shows Assistant Registrar Elise Dukart the beadwork on a pipe bowl bag he made.

We are currently developing a new exhibition drawn from materials in the S.D. Nelson Collection to be installed in the North Dakota Artists Gallery in late March 2022. The installation will include vignettes from the production of “Gift Horse: A Lakota Story,” “Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People,” and “Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story.” We will also show a selection of traditional objects fashioned and embellished by Nelson.

Nelson’s artistic style incorporates multiple aesthetics, which run the gamut from realism to highly stylized representation. His proud Native American figures are often brilliantly colored, blending the tradition of full body paint and the symbolism of favored Lakota colors. His characters and narratives exist in multi-layered landscapes merging the natural world, the spiritual, and the fantastical as one.

This illustration shows Lakota and Cheyenne warriors celebrating after a battle. They are holding spears, axes, and shields.

An illustration from “Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People” shows Lakota and Cheyenne warriors celebrating after the June 17, 1876, Battle of the Rosebud in the Montana Territory. SHSND PAR-2020.082.60

Nelson has illustrated book jackets, greeting cards, and CD covers, and his paintings are held in both private and public collections. His books have received the American Indian Library Association Honor Book Award in 2016; the Spur Award from Western Writers of America in 2004 and 2006; the Notable Children’s Book Award from the American Library Association in 2001 and 2011; and he was included on the 2011 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List from the Texas Library Association. He has lectured at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and was the keynote speaker for Read North Dakota in 2010 (North Dakota Humanities Council).

We look forward to introducing you to the evocative world of S.D. Nelson when we premier All Is Grass and Clouds, Forever: The Art of S.D. Nelson this spring.