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.

How Do You Interpret Controversial History?

Every historic site has its own unique story. It may be colorful. It may be weighty. It may even cover events of a controversial nature. If a site falls into this last category, how best do you present and interpret its history?

The history of Fort Totten deals with the interactions and conflicts between two different cultures, the Dakota and American. The interpretation we present to site visitors has changed and expanded over the last fifty years. When first opened to the public in 1960, our interpretation focused on the site being a well-preserved frontier military outpost. The fort was built to protect early Euro-American settlers of the Devils Lake Basin area, as well as Dakota tribes who had been convinced by the US Government to settle nearby. The fort’s role as a boarding and industrial school for hundreds of Dakota and Chippewa children for more than sixty years (three times the length of its life as a military post) was not integrated much at all in the interpretation, except in passing.

reenactment from American Revolutionary War era

Children participate in a reenactment of a scene from the American Revolutionary War era, ca. 1908. (SHSND 0210-006)

Fast-forward fifty-five years and our interpretation of the site’s history now incorporates the military story, the school story, and the site’s role as a preventorium (a four-year program to teach about preventing the spread of tuberculosis). We also discuss the ways previous site staff have interpreted Fort Totten since we became a part of the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1960. To help visitors connect to the often painful and difficult experiences of Dakota children when they first arrived at the industrial and boarding school, we utilize oral histories of former students. These histories indicate that for most of its existence, the school meted out harsh discipline and focused on teaching students how to do manual labor. This was believed to help native students leave school as good citizens, farmers, and homemakers. Strict rules of discipline assisted the teachers in ensuring the students would cease to use their native language, learn to speak English, and fully embrace American culture. The goal was to remove all prior connection to their Dakota past.

Tipis gathered outside fort

Tipis gathered around outside of fort, ca. 1900 (SHSND 0420-008)

The exhibits we have designed and installed in several of our buildings put the visitor in the shoes of one of four composite characters of real people who lived, worked, or were stationed here. We present the history with this first-hand interaction and strategic use of the voices of former students and soldiers to ensure that when visitors leave Fort Totten they come away with a better understanding of this site’s unique history. More importantly, we hope we have interpreted the layered and nuanced history of the site in such a way that the visitor becomes an advocate for the site - to tell others of this significant place and bring new visitors here to learn about the complex history of Fort Totten; military fort and boarding school.

Great Sources of Information about Fort Totten

Visitors often have personal connections to the history of Fort Totten. Researching the files we have at the site and answering a visitor’s question is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Site Supervisor. There are three resources we primarily use. Two of them are primary sources, and the third is secondary.

The first source we use when looking for an answer to a question is one of the three school yearbooks donated to us by former students of the boarding school that operated here between 1891 and 1959. The yearbooks are from 1910, 1939, and 1951. These have great pictures of former students and employees of the school as well as the clubs and sports organizations the school had throughout its history. This past summer, the 1910 yearbook was used to locate photos of two girls who had once attended the school. The girls were ancestors of a woman visiting the site. She was looking for information to help her research her family history.

1951 Yearbook Cover

Cover of 1951 yearbook

Archival staff and past Site Supervisors have also compiled wonderful collections of historical photos. Several of these have been placed in a large binder, located at the site. The photos show many of Fort Totten’s buildings-- some of which no longer exist. They are a great reference when showing visitors what the Fort used to look like. I used this binder and the historic photos while putting together information to have a gazebo rebuilt two summers ago. The gazebo had been constructed early on in the school era to beautify the grounds.


Picture of new gazebo

I also use historic photos to promote the site’s history on our Facebook page It has been a great way to interact with the public and to spark conversations about the site. Stories that people share about the site and post on the Facebook page are gathered and put in our site’s history files after permission is granted from the author.

The secondary source that I reference the most while searching for answers to visitors’ questions is the book, History of Fort Totten, which was written in the 1950s by the United States Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The book details the history of Fort Totten, including the Indian Industrial School and Frontier Fort Era. It also has a chapter of oral histories that were gathered by the State Historical Society of North Dakota in the 1970s and 1980s from former students of the school. Four of these oral histories were videotaped and are used in our orientation video.

As a Site Supervisor, I continue to add to the primary source history of the site by recording and saving the stories and memories that are told to me by those who come searching for answers to their questions.

You’re a State Historic Site Supervisor - What Does That Mean?

Supervising a state historic site takes an understanding of many different disciplines—an extensive knowledge of history and the history of the site are just the most important. Historic site supervision means I must be ready for anything. When I started as supervisor of the Ft. Totten State Historic Site, I never thought I would soon be fluent in running a Bobcat or using my limited experience (3 weeks) as a temporary assistant for a boiler repairman to fix plumbing in the visitor’s center. Caring for a historic site requires constant vigilance and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

Plumbing repair at Ft. Totten

Repairing bathroom plumbing at Ft. Totten

Currently, I am supervising the restoration and rehabilitation of the hospital, one of 16 historic buildings at Ft. Totten. This summer, we hope to complete the tuck pointing of the masonry as well as repairing and replacing several windows.

In addition to the maintenance of an ever changing historic site, I also spend time planning events and educational programming for the site. We are always challenging ourselves to come up with new ideas to interpret the site, and to hopefully better tell the story of Ft. Totten. We are presently planning the annual Living History Field Day for September. Each year, area students come to the site to learn about frontier military activities, boarding school trades and American Indian culture.

On any given day, I can be found opening the gift shop, removing gophers from the parade ground, or answering a phone call about a relative who may have gone to school here in the 1920s. It certainly sounds hectic, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. The excitement and unpredictability I find out here at Ft. Totten, on the shores of Devils Lake, makes it one of the most exciting and worthwhile jobs to have.

Taking phone calls at Ft. Totten

Taking phone calls at Ft. Totten

One of the best parts of being a site supervisor is doing research. In my next blog entry, I plan to provide an in-depth look at what research goes into answering some of the fascinating questions on the history of the site. Until then, explore your surroundings.

Researching Ft. Totten

Researching the site history of Ft. Totten