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.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Valentine’s Day: The Museum Edition

Gift giving can be hard work. Things that were once thoughtful gifts might seem like bad ideas today. Here are some examples from our museum collection of what not to give your special someone this Valentine’s Day.

1. A Sexist Greeting Card. Nothing screams romance like asking your valentine to repair your clothing. It is hard to say what Ellen Olstad of Galesburg might have thought about this card when she received it in the 1930s, but I bet you can do better.

An old Valentine's Day card of a dark haired boy with big, blue eyes who's trying to sew a button onto his blue and black checkered pants for his red suspenders. The card reads Now is the time for some good girl to come to the aid of this party.

I would let him figure it out himself. SHSND 1993.19.22

2. Hairy Accessories. Gifts that fit your valentine’s interests are always a good idea. But maybe don’t make an arts and crafts project out of your own hair. I’ve touched on the strangeness of hair art in a previous blog. And here is another example. Peter Davidson lived in Hatton and later in Arnegard with his wife, Hilda. By wearing this watch chain, Davidson displayed both his membership in the Modern Woodmen of America organization and his devotion to whoever braided it.

A braided necklace made of dark hair hair with a leaf charm hanging from the middle.

It would be hard to forget (or forgive) any gift made of hair. SHSND 1990.280.1

3. Lethal Irons. Unless specifically requested, housekeeping items make terrible gifts. Especially ones that can kill you. Asbestos sad irons were all the rage before the rise of the electric iron. These featured a removable asbestos-lined cover that fit over the heated metal iron. The asbestos cover worked great to keep the iron hot and the handle cool. Too bad asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma commercials in the United States. Ah, but the ease of housework! Laundry room equipment contained asbestos for decades. So, while the women in Jessie Hunter Lorenz’s family in Pembina pressed their clothes with the asbestos iron in the early 1900s, the Weinrebe family in Minot cooled their irons on this asbestos iron pad in the 1950s.

A metal iron and cover are shown next to a sign advertising the asbestos iron cover that reads No-Lift Iron Pad: Fireproof, asbestos, protects board and ironing cover, non-skid surface. Saves Time. Saves Energy. Just Slide it On.

Best to avoid giving cancer-causing household items this Valentine’s Day. SHSND 1995.37.55, 1993.33.106

I’ll leave you with this parting advice when it comes to last-minute gifts for your sweetie:

Doing the ironing for your valentine. Good gift.
Giving your valentine an iron. Bad gift.
Giving your valentine a deadly iron. Really bad gift.

But Why? 4 Artifacts in Our Museum Collection That Just Don’t Make Sense

The State Historical Society of North Dakota started its collection in 1895. Over the past 126 years, the museum collection has acquired many artifacts with a unique and important North Dakota story. But every now and then I come across something that really makes me scratch my head. Here are a few that left me asking, “But why?”

1. Samurai armor

Samurai armor, including a helmet, chest plate, and face shield

Samurai armor from Japan’s Bungo Province, 1775-1860. If you look closely under the nose (far left) you can see remnants of a hair mustache. Fearsome! SHSND 2015.59.1-10

What does a Japanese suit of armor have to do with North Dakota history? Not much. So why do we have it? The museum acquired the armor from Henry Horton of Bismarck in 1938. At that time, museums served as places where people who could not travel the world came to see rare and exotic things. Samurai armor is a prime example.

2. Poodle fur hat and scarf

A white hat and matching scarf made of poodle fur

This hat and scarf made of poodle fur are not nearly as cuddly as one would hope. SHSND 1982.139.2-3

This one needs no commentary. I think you will join me in asking, “Why?” In the spring of 1924 and 1925 Carrie Larson, a mother of five from Benson County, collected hair from her poodle and proceeded to wash, comb, card, spin, and knit it into a child’s hat and scarf. Below is a picture of the poodle.

A man in a long trenchcoat and hat stands next to a dark colored car with a white dog on the running board

Carrie’s son Otto Larson and their useful poodle. A very good dog.

3. A broken Thanksgiving turkey wishbone

A wishbone that has been broken in two just below the neck on one side. There is also a note attached to the other side.

I wonder if anyone recalls what they wished for? SHSND 2021.45.1

Museums sometimes have items that are called FICs or Found In Collections. These items have no paperwork, so we don’t know their history or who donated them. The oddest FIC I’ve seen so far is a broken turkey wishbone from 1921. Attached to it is a note that reads: “For Fraziers Turkey Nov. 24, 1921.” While trying to determine why someone would give a wishbone to the museum, I learned former North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier’s last year in office was 1921. Any connection between this wishbone and the Frazier’s Thanksgiving turkey is tenuous at best, but I found out some interesting tidbits about the former governor that I need you to know:

  • He was a member of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a political movement which spurred the creation of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator.
  • In 1921, he became the first U.S. governor removed from office by recall. The next successful gubernatorial recall wouldn’t be until 2003 when voters removed California Gov. Gray Davis from office.
  • Frazier named his twin daughters Unie and Versie. Frazier was a graduate of the University of North Dakota and felt his children’s names were a good way to show his school spirit.

4. Hair art

A framed case that displays flower art made out of hair

Yes, that is hair. SHSND 11668

Hair art is pretty common in museum collections, but that doesn’t make it any less baffling to me. When I asked Assistant Registrar Elise Dukart why making art out of human hair was so popular during the Victorian period, she aptly responded, “Victorians loved weird, slow activities. They must have had so much time and so much hair.” Rosetta Carroll made this wreath out of her family’s hair in around 1890. Rosetta and her husband, Fred, farmed near Ryder. Although it seems bizarre today, hair art was once a popular craft often used to memorialize loved ones.

These days we are a bit more choosey about what artifacts are added to the museum collection. Our primary focus is to ensure donations fit the State Historical Society’s mission: “To identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.” We also look for key factors like the item’s condition, whether the donor provided a history of the item, the donation’s similarity to other artifacts already in the collection, and our ability to properly care for it. Still, I am sure we will acquire things that will make future generations ask, “Why?” But then again, asking why is half the fun of exploring the past.

Weird or Cute? Instagram Votes On 5 Quirky Artifacts From Our Museum Collection

In my first blog post about a year ago, I shared some of the weird and/or cool experiences of being a new employee. Now that I’ve gotten to know the State Museum’s collection, I want to share some of the artifacts that have made me look twice. These objects caught my eye and made me wonder, “Is this weird or cute?” I needed more input, so I polled the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum’s Instagram followers. Around 150 people voted, and here are the results:

1. Let’s start with an easy one. A rock collage sailboat titled “Aqua Cat.” How could this be anything but cute? North Dakota artist Ann Peters created this piece in the early 1970s for then-Gov. William Guy. The incongruence of the title and the subject matter is what really warms my heart. A boat named “Aqua Cat” must be 100% cute, and it looks like our followers agreed.

Aqua Cat - A rock collage. Weird or Cute? 58% Cute. 42% Really Cute. The image is of a shite, brown, and tan sailboat made out of rocks.

My phrasing of the question may have slightly skewed the results. SHSND 1984.207

2. Both amazing and slightly painful to behold, this squirrel-and-mushroom-patterned shirt is sure to make a splash at your next COVID-safe social gathering. Greg Machart’s brother-in-law Lee Matthiesen donated this spectacular shirt to the museum in 1992. Lee asserted Greg wore it throughout the 1970s. If this is true, we would like pictures. If it is not, I would like to congratulate Lee for pulling off one very well-preserved prank.

1970s squirrel and mushroom patterned shirt. Weird or Cute? 51% Weird. 49% Cute. The image is of a button up shirt with long sleeves and a collar that is purple with red and blue mushroms and circles with squirrel images in them.

Our followers were surprisingly tolerant of this bold and busy garment. SHSND 1991.76.6

3. A lively addition to any living room, these birds of paradise pillows were made by Christina Roemmech of Glen Ullin. Crafted out of carpet-like piling deep enough to lose your keys in, the pillows certainly garnered some “weird” votes. But the beautiful and comfy birds no doubt helped earn them a “cute!” from the majority.

These pillows - Weird or Cute? 32% Weird. 68% Cute. The two pilloes have a flamingo on them with yellow and pink flowers and green plants in a circle around the flamingo.

Birds of a feather flock together. SHSND 1992.52.1-2

4. Are you still cracking your walnuts with a boring old nutcracker? Or even worse … a creepy one? Then check out this one shaped like man’s best friend! The early 20th-century canine contraption once helped crack the toughest nuts in rural Mandan.

A nutcracker shaped like a dog! Weird or cute? 32% weird. 68% cute. The nutcracker is brown and shaped like a dog.

Thirty-two percent of our followers are weird. This guy is adorable. SHSND 2007.80.95

5. Twenty years ago, everyone wanted to get rid of their brightly hued porcelain thrones. Now the trend is making a comeback. Until it was donated in 2007, this 1950s gem graced what was arguably the most vital room in one Bismarck home. Toilets like this also came in other nostalgia-inducing shades including avocado green, powder blue, and canary yellow.

Classic 1950s pink toilet. Weird or cute? 50% Weird. 50% Cute. The pink toilet has a woodgrain seat and lid cover.

Our Instagram results showed an unexpected tie for this American Standard. SHSND 2007.86.2

Dressing the Mannequin: Padding Hips, Chopping Feet and Other Lesser-known Exhibit Alterations

Faithful readers of this blog have known about the upcoming Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit since this past February. By now, they might be thinking, “Gee, this exhibit is taking a long time.” Likewise, my friends and family who read my blogs out of obligation might be thinking, “Gee, I wonder when Lori is going to stop talking about mannequins?” So, I decided to write about the time it takes to complete just one aspect of the exhibit production process: mannequin dressing. Hopefully, this will shed light on why it takes so long to put together an exhibit.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just slip an outfit on a dress form and call it good? That would make exhibit preparation so much quicker. But out of 140 outfits used in this exhibit, I can count on one hand the number of forms that didn’t need some sort of modification. (Former North Dakota first lady Grace Link, I love you and your dress.) A good mannequin dresser never makes the garment fit the form. It’s always the other way around. The form must fit the garment. Modifications may include building out the forms by padding out waistlines and hips, or even adding arms and legs. Alternately some forms need to be reduced, which requires chopping off specific body parts. The desired result of all this work is to make historical garments appear their best, while protecting and supporting them throughout the exhibit.

Let’s take a look at one example. Catherine Tschida Patterson of Sims, North Dakota, wore this cotton and lace dress to her graduation in 1912. (Learn more about this cool dress.)

Step 1: First, we try the garment on the form to get a sense of what needs to be done. In this case, Catherine’s dress looked pretty empty and needed padding at the bust and hips, as well as arms.

White dress on a mannequin with a silver ribbon around the waist. There are floral pattern cutouts throughout the dress.

Just an “empty” graduation dress. SHSND 1988.230.2

Step 2: I layered on polyester quilt batting to those areas that needed padding. Polyester batting is scratchy, so we added a layer of cotton stockinette tubing to protect the garment. This also helps hold the batting in place. Then the dress goes back on to see if it looks right. Sometimes I need to repeat this step two or three times before I get the padding situated correctly.

The bust and hips of a mannequin with polyester around the hips to give more shape and a cloth around the upper body

Here, polyester batting has been used to fill out the bust and hips. The top half of the form has also been covered with stockinette.

Step 3: The next step is usually to add arms and a linen neckline cover. Because Catherine’s dress is a light, cotton lingerie-style dress typical of the early 1900s, it also needed a slip. Our curator of collections management, Jenny Yearous, sewed a white cotton slip to protect Catherine’s modesty.

The bust and hips of a mannequin with cloth covering and stuffed arms attached

“Armed” and ready for dressing.

A headles mannequin with a full-length cotton slip over it and stuffed arms attached

Underwear is important.

Step 4: The final dressing. The finished product is a more lifelike shape consistent with typical women’s fashion during the 1910s. Most people won’t notice the form underneath the garments. But the work that goes into the form helps each item of clothing look its best.

White dress on a mannequin with a silver ribbon around the waist. There are floral pattern cutouts throughout the dress.

Catherine Tschida Patterson’s dress is now ready for exhibit. SHSND 1988.230.2

Other types of modifications used during exhibit preparation include carving down forms or removing body parts altogether.

A woman with black pants and shirt, black glasses, darnk har, and a red, white, and blue striped face mask stands holding a tinfoil wrapped mannequin leg on a table saw, about to cut part of the foot off

Here I am chopping off feet so boots can fit, a little something I call “Cinderella,” the twisted, non-Disney version.

A mannequin from neck to hips sits on a stand with black marks drawn on it and parts shaved off lying on the floor.

A curator’s work can be brutal.

Meanwhile, other staff are working hard on the many additional pieces of the exhibit puzzle. I’ll leave you with a list of some other parts of the exhibit-making process you may not have thought about:

  • Researching and writing exhibit text
  • Writing object labels
  • Editing exhibit text and object labels
  • Graphic design of approved exhibit text and object labels to make them visually appealing and easy to read
  • Graphic design of all photographic images in the exhibit
  • Video production and editing
  • Working with lenders for items loaned specifically for this exhibit
  • Design of exhibit floor plan and layout
  • Fabrication of the exhibit floor plan and layout
  • Fabrication of exhibit furniture (risers, boxes, etc.) and special object mounts

Beyond “Mrs. Husband’s Name”: Researching Women’s Full Names

While working from home the past two months, collection staff in the Audience Engagement and Museum Division started a long-needed data cleanup project. While often tedious, one part of this project I am truly enjoying is researching the first names of women who we only have recorded as “Mrs. Last Name,” or “Mrs. Husband’s Name.”

The New York Times recently published a series called “The Mrs. Files” discussing the same type of project. This article articulates the tradition of using a husband’s name to refer to a married woman.

Women using “Mrs. Husband’s Name” in a social and official capacity was very common, although it seems odd looking at it from a contemporary point of view. Many of the artifact donation forms from the early days of the State Historical Society are signed this way, and this continued well into the 1980s.

I believe it is important that these women are remembered as themselves, not only by the names of their loved ones. Researching and recording these first names ensures their work and contributions to the state’s history are remembered.

Mrs. Adams

In 1936, the North Dakota Federation of Women’s Clubs donated a sampler created by a Mrs. Adams from LaMoure. In this case, the artifact itself helped identify the artist, as Mrs. Adams embroidered her initials, “O.M.A.” I didn’t think many Adamses would be living in LaMoure during that period, so I looked through census records. In the 1940 census, three women with the last name Adams appeared in LaMoure County; one was Olive. To confirm this suspicion, I looked at the 1930 census, and listed below her husband Paul was “Olive M. Adams.” Digging a little further I learned Olive Marshall, born in 1879, married Paul Adams, a prominent LaMoure banker, in 1904. Looking into newspapers from the area would probably reveal even more about Olive M. Adams, but for now, her full name fills gaps in the sampler’s history.

Framed beaded piece that says North Dakota 1889 - 1936 In small things Liberty, In large things Unity, In all things Charity. There are clouds, a bison, covered wagin, tipi, squirrel holding wheat, farmstead, and the state capitol depicted.

Sampler by Olive Marshall Adams (the artist formerly known as Mrs. Adams). SHSND 1977.27

Mrs. William P. Zahn

There are beautiful pieces of beadwork in the State Historical Society’s collection attributed to Mrs. William P. Zahn. Researching Mrs. Zahn was not difficult because her son, Frank B. Zahn, donated the items. Frank, a prominent North Dakota judge and historian, was easy to find. According to his obituary, Frank was the son of William P. and Kezewin Zahn.1 Kezewin was the daughter of Yanktonai chief Flying Cloud and appears in some Federal and Indian census records under the English-Christian name Mary Josephine Zahn (an assimilationist re-naming practice deserving of its own full article). I knew the State Archives had records from Frank Zahn, so I did a quick search and they have multiple photos of Kezewin and her family!

How striking is it to put not only a full name, but also a face to the woman who made this piece!

A beaded cradle hood with yellow trim. The main area is beaded in white and there are red stars with yellow and red squares inside them, red squared with yellow and green quares inside, and triangle, diamond, and square shapes in the same colors.

Soft cradle hood made by Kezewin Zahn. SHSND 2557

Mrs. John Kruger

In 1956, Mrs. Otto A. Matzek donated the wedding dress of her mother, Mrs. John Kruger. This one was harder. I had two people to find. Once I found that Mrs. Matzek was Edith Kruger Matzek, finding her mother became easier. Researching Gerahdina “Dena” Detmer Kruger revealed two things. First, we had the wrong date recorded for the dress. The donor misremembered her mother’s wedding date as January 1912. The Weekly-Time Record out of Valley City announced the upcoming wedding of Miss Dena Detmer and John W. Kruger on January 15, 1913.2

An off white/tan wedding dress. It is full length and has long sleeves. There is a draped part over the chest. Beaded fringe hands off of part of the chest drape and the sleeves.

Dena Detmer Kruger’s time-traveling wedding dress. SHSND 13355

Second, it turns out that Dena Detmer was a postmaster for Lucca in Barnes County in the 1930s! How cool is that?!

A record of the different postmasters in Barnes county from 1928 to 1960, including John W. Kruger, Mrs. Dena F. Kruger, Mrs. Grace Leone Phillips, Pearletta R Fisk.

Dena, the mail woman (Ancestry.com. U.S., Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on-line].)

The State Historical Society has artifacts and records attributed to women around the state using their husband’s names. We don’t know if they did this simply because it was the social norm, or if that was their preferred title. Perhaps early record keepers made the decision for them. Whatever the reason, documenting the women’s full names builds a richer and more complete picture of North Dakota’s history.


1 “Frank B. Zahn, Historian, Judge, Dies Here Sunday,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 5, 1966, 10.
2 The Weekly Times-Record (Valley City, ND), January 9, 1913, 5.