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!

The Sitting Bull Robe Saga: Exploring the Lifecycle of an International Loan During a Pandemic

Part of museum work is loaning objects to other institutions. The State Museum currently has 22 active loans, most of which are in-state and straightforward. But when an international border and a pandemic are involved, the situation can get a bit more complicated. Here’s what happened when an art gallery in Canada requested a rare artifact for an exhibit a few years back.

Birth: In late 2018, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, requested the loan of a significant piece of our shared history: a buffalo robe painted by Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull painted the robe between 1877 and 1881 while seeking asylum in what is now Saskatchewan. It is the only known buffalo hide painting by Sitting Bull in existence. The robe, which Sitting Bull initially gave to Canadian trader Gus Heddrich, entered the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s collection in 1945 after Heddrich and his wife died.

Buffalo robe painting by Sitting Bull. SHSND 10117

When institutions request loans from the state’s collection, some boring but important paperwork must be completed. Collections staff reviewed the reason for the loan, the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s exhibit plans for the painting, and details about the gallery’s light levels and climate control. The loan request noted: “This artwork could be considered one of the most significant Indigenous paintings completed within Saskatchewan but has never been exhibited in Saskatchewan. It would be of enormous interest to the descendants of Sitting Bull’s people as well as the larger community.” State Historical Society staff agreed—the loan was approved, and its journey began.

Transport: Some not-so-boring paperwork followed. Our registrars (aka paperwork gurus) exchanged over 100 emails with the gallery’s customs broker, U.S. and Canadian customs officials, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel to complete all the forms required to transport the robe safely across the border. Due to the robe’s cultural and historical significance it required a courier, that is, a personal escort on its travels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cost of international fine art couriers is a bit prohibitive, so State Historical Society staff decided to make the trek with the robe themselves. The robe was carefully packed in a large shipping crate, and in June 2019, two staff members made the six-hour drive from Bismarck to Regina, Canada.

All packed up and on the road.

Exhibit: From June 2019 to April 2020, Sitting Bull’s hide painting featured prominently in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibition. The exhibit explored the diverse ways Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in the province related to land, and how objects carry histories and stories. You can learn more about the exhibit on the MacKenzie’s website. Staff at the art gallery developed a variety of programming around the buffalo robe, including public talks with First Nations members. Artist and Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill was at the gallery to welcome the robe on behalf of the Lakota people of Saskatchewan. He also shared some of the meanings behind the images on the hide painting in this video.

View of Sitting Bull’s robe in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibit. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Opening event with Lakota Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill on June 20, 2019. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Extension: The loan’s original end date was set for May 30, 2020. Agency staff had their passports ready, but the universe had other ideas. The U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential travel for nineteen months. Between March 2020 and November 2021, the State Historical Society and the MacKenzie signed two loan extensions. This additional time led to unique opportunities, including extra months for visitors to view the robe. During the robe’s extended stay, the gallery’s “Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth” class used it as inspiration for a video game project that combined Indigenous oral storytelling with interactive design. From December 2020 to April 2021, the robe and the students’ work were showcased in the exhibit Travelling Memory: Sitting Bull’s Robe, The Mackenzie’s Art School, and the Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth.

The Travelling Memory exhibit highlighted a video game project by eighth-grade students at the MacKenzie Art School. The project gave audience members an interactive way to experience the story of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Return: Since every North Dakotan and Canadian knows that safe travel in the winter (or even spring) is no guarantee, arrangements to pick up the robe were made for early June 2022. Once again, the registrars emailed and traded paperwork like crazy to ensure a pain-free border crossing.

Reunited, and it feels so good! The robe was patiently waiting for agency staff at the MacKenzie Art Gallery collections storage area.

Sitting Bull’s buffalo hide painting returned to Bismarck on June 4, 2022. Previously, it was exhibited at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum for over thirty years. But continuous display, exposure to light, and repeated handling is stressful on natural materials. So for the foreseeable future it will be resting in storage to help preserve the colored pigment and the condition of the hide.

State Historic Sites Keep Me On My Toes As The Summer Season Begins

Another summer season is upon us! It is the most exciting time of the year. Every day when I get to work fresh opportunities present themselves. This is part of what I like about being a historic sites manager. It is never the same. Sure, there are routine tasks I do regularly, but most of the time I walk into work with a different agenda for the day than the one I end up with. New projects, mysteries, and challenges arise to keep me on my toes. Most days, I do not get to my planned agenda before my phone rings, and we are off to tackle some new adventure.

In fall 2020, my phone rang. It was a call about upgrading the playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site near Grenora. The decades-old playground equipment at the site was from the time when the State Historical Society oversaw both historic sites and state parks. The outdated equipment was no longer safe. For the next several months, I worked with officials from Divide County to secure funding and design a new playground set for the site. As part of the project, I applied for several grants, including ones from the John & Elaine Andrist Fund and the Outdoor Heritage Fund. This past winter, the equipment was installed. On June 11 we held a grand opening event, where the community could try out the equipment, and the staff of the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center hosted hands-on games.

The old playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site near Grenora.

New playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site.

One of the biggest improvements we are working on this year is installing an elevator at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site. It is not every day you can make a historic structure Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. Installing the elevator will allow visitors who are unable to climb the stairs to the courtroom to still attend programs there or even court, should the Southeast Judicial District need to use the space again for jury trials as was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a massive project that will significantly improve the use of this beautiful building. Plus, it also has revealed some fun little tidbits. We never expected to find beadboard under the paneling of the judge’s platform. We have not seen beadboard anywhere in the courthouse before. Could it be that there was more beadboard in the courthouse, and it was covered when all the tin went up to hide the damage resulting from the 1916 courthouse fire?

Workers from RDA Construction discovered beadboard paneling under the judge’s platform at the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site.

The floor in the former superintendent's office was removed to make room for the new elevator at the courthouse.

A construction worker stands in the new doorway, which will serve as a second entrance and access point to the elevator.

These are just a couple of the new things we have been working on at state historic sites. We are also in the process of acquiring a helicopter for the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown. The 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site has several programs planned for the summer, including talks with law enforcement. Fort Totten State Historic Site will feature concerts this month and is working on more events to come. The Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is hosting a prototype exhibit for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library for a limited time. All in all, it’s set to be an excellent summer to check out our wonderful state historic sites.

The Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is hosting a prototype exhibit for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.