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.

Please Don’t Eat the Artifacts

One of the cool things about my job is I get to put real objects in people’s hands. When objects are donated to a museum they generally go through a basic process. A committee considers a number of things including: What is known about the history of this item? Do we know who created it or who used it? How does this relate to what we already have in our collections? Do we need another one? Is there a clear connection to North Dakota history? Is there a clear chain of legal ownership established? This chain of ownership is known as provenance in the museum world. If we can’t establish provenance, we usually can’t accept an object as a donation.

Beaver Pelt

Beaver pelt from the Fur Trade SEND trunk.


Piece of a hand-stitched crazy quilt from the Women’s Work SEND trunk.

So what happens to items that are not accepted in the official museum collection? There are a number of things a donor might decide to do at this point—keep the item, sell it, throw it away. We usually recommend other museums that might be interested in particular items, and sometimes we ask to add the objects to our Education Collection. While an official museum collection is handled in a very purposeful manner, objects in an education collection are eventually used up. Objects that are part of the official museum proper are not touched unless they need to be, such as an inventory or being placed in an exhibit. The goal is to preserve these objects forever. An education collection is different in that while we do try to handle things carefully, we know that it is unlikely these items will be preserved forever. The objects very well could be used up to the point they are broken and eventually thrown away. Why would we allow this to happen? An education collection gives us objects we can put into people’s hands. Visitors can examine quilt squares to see the difference between machine and hand stitching. They can put on a pair of wire rim eyeglasses. They can pick up the scent of cloves that can still be detected in a metal spice container. They can write on a slate board and feel the fur on a beaver pelt. There is nothing more fun than explaining to a group of 4th graders that the coprolite they are holding is real, fossilized, dinosaur poo.

One way of getting all these educational objects into people’s hands is to ship them out to every corner of the state in big boxes we call SEND trunks. The Suitcase Exhibits of North Dakota (or SEND) program is geared to the 4th grade classroom. However, we have all kinds of other organizations that use SEND trunks including other museums, nursing homes, Boy Scouts, and homeschool groups. We retire and add new topics periodically, with about 18 to 20 topics available most of the time. If your school or organization is interested in getting your hands on history, you can order a trunk by submitting the form available at this link: or e-mailing me at

Gun Barrel

Gun Barrel fashioned into a scraper to clean the flesh off of animal hides before tanning. From the Fur Trade SEND Trunk.

Working Together

As a historian, I was very comfortable researching and writing topics for eighth grade North Dakota Studies curriculum North Dakota: People Living on the Land ( That is, I was comfortable until I faced Unit 1, which runs from the Paleozoic Era to A.D. 1200 I had much to learn about paleontology.

I turned to now-retired State Paleontologist John Hoganson. Hoganson’s articles and books are written for non-paleontologists. I interviewed John and read his publications. With his help, I developed a plan to bring paleontology into the eighth-grade curriculum.

While I was working on Unit 1, the Heritage Center expansion was underway. Another paleontologist, Becky Barnes, temporarily occupied a desk just a few feet from mine. I was fortunate to be within “hollering” distance of a paleontologist. I could have inquired in a loud voice, “Becky, how is Xiphactinus pronounced?”


The Xiphactinus was a predatory fish, 18 feet long, with immense fangs. Fossilized remains of a Xiphactinus that lived 85 to 65 million years ago were found in Cavalier County. 10.12.13.

But, I found that a trip to Becky’s desk offered other opportunities I had not imagined.

Becky is a paleontologist and an artist. She paints many images for the State Museum and paleontology publications. One day, I strolled over to her desk and found her working on an illustration of how sediment was laid down and how geological shifts and erosion had left the earth’s surface looking like what we see today. That illustration, “A Piece of Cake,” was modified and included in People Living on the Land.

I worked with people in all divisions of the State Historical Society to develop a well-rounded curriculum. I turned to the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division (AHP) for help with prehistory. I took an archaeology course once, so I wasn’t completely ignorant, but I depended on the division staff to direct me to pertinent research reports and photographs, guide me in the right direction, and answer my endless questions. State Archaeologist Fern Swenson encouraged me to use archaeological evidence to determine the ending date of Unit 1. Historians commonly use 1492 and the arrival of Columbus to divide prehistory from history. But Fern convinced me that A.D. 1200 is a better date for North Dakota Studies because that is when Menoken Village was occupied.

Menoken Indian Village

Menoken Village, located a few miles east of Bismarck on Apple Creek, was occupied around 1200 A.D. The palisade wall and the remains of earthlodges indicate that it was a permanent village.

The village is the earliest known permanent village site in North Dakota.

Ration ticket

This ration ticket, for the last three months of 1900, indicates that Blue Blanket was the single mother of two boys. She received general rations (flour, salt, etc) and beef. Museum 381.2.

We wanted to include museum objects that could tell a story or illustrate a point. Jenny Yearous, Museum curator, helped me out one day when she brought out a bundle of ration tickets that had been used on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The ration tickets seemed a curiosity and a good illustration for reservation history. Further research indicated that the tickets told a profound story about the transition from a pre-reservation life of hunting and gardening to a life of poverty and dependence by 1900. Research in the federal Indian census produced more information and brought to life the families listed on the ration tickets.

With friendly advice from all divisions of the State Historical Society, the curriculum creditably covers 500 million years of history. By the way, Xiphactinus is pronounced zy FACT in us.