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.

Learning from Historical Rabbit Holes: Iron Horn, an Awl, and a Deeper Understanding of the Past

As a security officer, I have logged many miles patrolling the galleries at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. During these daily patrols, I challenge myself to focus on the depth of information selective items represent. Much like the title character of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I believe it is only by journeying down historical rabbit holes and digging deeper into the past that I can comprehend its significance and contemporary reverberations.

Along the north wall of the State Museum’s Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today, you will find a small picture of a Hunkpapa Lakota gentleman who was born around 1830. His anglicized name is Iron Horn. The story of Iron Horn and his siblings reflects the tragic choices forced on northern Plains people in the mid-to-late 19th century. Iron Horn’s family was divided over whether to accommodate Euro-American migratory pressure. Three of his brothers defied the U.S. government mandate that they retire to a reservation, joining up with Sitting Bull and fleeing to Canada after the Battle of the Greasy Grass. One of those brothers was Rain-in-the-Face; he would be mythologized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Revenge of Rain-in-the Face.” Iron Horn and two other brothers stayed on the Missouri River and became leaders in varying capacities on the Standing Rock Reservation. Ironically one of the Standing Rock brothers, Sgt. Charles Shavehead, was killed while on duty as a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) policeman during the arrest of Sitting Bull. Theirs was a family torn apart by the untenable choices they were forced to make.

A native man sits wearing traditional attire with long, braided hair and a peace pipe in his hands

The story of Iron Horn, pictured in 1872, and his siblings reflects the tragic choices forced on northern Plains people. SHSND SA B0299

Associated with Iron Horn is an awl, used by his wife Ina. It is easy to pass by the small display featuring Iron Horn, his wife, and her awl; I am sure many visitors to the State Museum do so. But for the analytical observer willing to invest time and a systemic approach to understanding the relationship among Iron Horn, the loss of traditional and religious values, and his wife’s awl, deeper revelations about our own existence and its impact on others may be discovered. This small exhibit kindled my interest and provided a conduit to further explore what might appear at first glance to be a negligible implement.

According to a journal article in Plains Anthropologist by Linea Sundstrom, the awl represented much more than a leather tool. As such, the transition from bone awls to using the metal type of awl housed in the Inspiration Gallery represented a significant shift in Lakota religious and ceremonial tradition. On the surface, this change was based on technological improvements. However, lost in the “technological advancement” was the cultural and religious significance tied to the bone awl.

For Lakota women, the bone awl was imperative to actualizing physical (womanhood), spiritual (visions), and pragmatic (production) aspirations. The act of sharpening bone awls created rock art, which was associated with female coming of age, played an important role in attaining visions, and ultimately created a useful tool for beadwork and other endeavors. The Iron Horn awl on exhibit in our museum was repurposed from “an old knife.” The adoption of metal technology, in effect, diminished the awl’s role as a transcendent cultural symbol for the Lakota and led to a significant loss of customs and religious heritage.

On the left are 6 bone awle and to the right is one metal awl

The transition from bone awls, left, to metal awls impacted the tool’s significance in Lakota religious and cultural life. This metal awl, right, was made by Iron Horn and used by his wife, Ina. SHSND 86.226.13798, 92.2.22, .24, .21, .25, 15600.62, 1982.285.31

This historical shift has often been explained in an ethnocentric manner by Euro-Americans. But by re-examining the broader cultural context behind such shifts, I have acquired a better understanding of the dynamic and multifaceted nature of historical discovery, as well as an appreciation for the awl’s importance to Native American women. Likewise, by understanding the fractured structure of Iron Horn’s clan, I gained insight into contemporary issues which impact both Native American communities and the U.S. political landscape.

Ultimately, I have found investigating historical rabbit holes can help bring about an enlightened understanding of lives lived. Exploring different cultures and perspectives of the past contributes to a shared contemporary understanding of who we are and how our various identities, in turn, shape our communities.

An adult man who is bald and wearing black glasses poses next to a bearGuest Blogger: Keith Smith

Originally from Southern California, Keith Smith moved to Bismarck in 2017 to be closer to his grandkids, following significant stops in Phoenix, Arizona, and Logan, Utah. He became a security officer at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in spring 2019 and is currently pursuing a master’s in U.S. History from Fort Hays State University. He has been married for 40 years and graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s in social science.

Securing Echoes of the Past: Safety at the State Museum

In the late 1840s a recent Scottish emigrant changed careers quite by accident. Unfulfilled working as an employee of a Chicago barrel-making company, he moved 50 miles north to Dundee Township, Illinois, where he engaged in cooperage as an entrepreneur. While collecting wood for use in his barrel production, he happened upon a clandestine group of men actively involved in a counterfeiting operation. Careful surveillance of the group and the appropriately timed notification of the local sheriff began the transformation of Allan Pinkerton from barrel maker into the most well-known security expert in the 19th century.

large ornate gravestone with "Pinkerton" and a quote

Allan Pinkerton is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Part of his epitaph reads, “Devoting himself for a generation to the prevention and detection of crime."

Having a general knowledge of the backgrounds of my fellow security team members, I would suspect our collective stories are more like Allan Pinkerton’s than not. The backgrounds of the security officers include, but are not limited to, security, construction, emergency medicine, military, high tech, consulting, juvenile corrections, and law enforcement. Many divergent paths have brought us to a common place in time with the primary goals of assuring the safety and security of both visitors and staff at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum and the protection of its holdings and property. The myriad of experience and training that resides in the collective ethos of the security team produces a synergistic environment of protection for the ND Heritage Center. All my coworkers seem to have a genuine interest in one or more of the different aspects of historical inquiry that is on display or stored at State Museum.

A primary responsibility of the security team is to maintain a presence on the floor of the State Museum during hours open to the public. The time spent on the floor is a critical part of our daily duties. Time spent with “boots on the ground” helps provide customer service and safety in many different ways. Engaging visitors in order to find out a little about their story is an incredibly empowering experience. Pared down to the foundational building blocks, isn’t “story” the bedrock of what we do at the ND Heritage Center? In addition to customer interaction, careful observance of the physical environment of the museum is of prime importance. Promoting conduct appropriate to a cultural institution ensures visitor safety and collection protection. In addition to providing a physical presence in the publicly accessible areas of the ND Heritage Center, security personnel make scheduled inspections of mechanical, telecom, office, artifact, and archival storage areas.

Security has a ubiquitous electronic presence not only here at the ND Heritage Center but also at many state historic sites. The State Historical Society’s security control room is the epicenter of monitoring and responding to alarm and trouble notifications, video systems, and telephone calls. Using a football analogy, when assigned to the control room, it is advantageous to take on a linebacker’s attitude of playing with your “head on a swivel.” As one of the primary points of ingress and egress to the facility, the security control center is a hub of activity during the day. As opposed to encountering the public at the main entrances, we have the privilege of greeting employees and their guests, contractors, and deliveries in addition to issuing badges and the aforementioned system monitoring responsibilities.

male security guard in maroon sweater and glasses in control room with monitors

Keith monitoring the State Historical Society’s security system.

Understanding the importance of preserving and presenting North Dakota’s place in history is at the heart of why we are here. In his novel Requiem for a Nun, author William Faulkner famously stated, “All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose providence dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations.” For me, it is salient to create a safe and friendly environment for those who choose to listen for those faint echoes.

Guest Blogger: Keith Smith

Keith Smith with bearOriginally from southern California, Keith Smith moved to Bismarck in 2017 to be closer to his grandkids, following significant stops in Phoenix, Arizona, and Logan, Utah. He became a security officer at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in spring 2019. He has been married for 38 years and graduated from the University of Wyoming—Go Pokes!