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.

National History Day: The Kids Are All Right

I have good news and bad news. First: the bad news—we are living in troubled times. However, that’s not really news. As a historian, I assure you, people have always been living in troubled times. Now: the good news—I have seen the future, and things are looking up. I see the future each year as students from around the state participate in the National History Day in North Dakota contest.

Group photo of NHD award winners

Students and teachers from Elgin-New Leipzig Public School participated in National History Day in North Dakota on April 7, 2017.

The state contest is affiliated with the National History Day contest that takes place in College Park, Maryland, in June. Similar to a science fair, the national contest has been around since the 1970s. If you ever need proof that the kids are alright, I encourage you to visit the National History Day website and review some of the past contest entries. I think you’ll agree with me that these kids are ready to take on the world.

Display board featuring Galileo

Exhibit Entry, Galileo, from the 2018 National History Day in North Dakota State Competition, Junior Group Exhibit, by Abigale Berger and Ruby Brunn of Dickinson Middle School.

Display board featuring Chicago skyscrapers

Exhibit Entry, Tragedy of the Great Fire and Triumph of Skyscraper City, from the 2019 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Exhibit.

We work with teachers across the state all year to plan the state contest held each April. Workshops for educators and students in grades 6-12 provide a general overview of the program. We break things down into digestible parts that include selecting a topic, conducting historical research, and creating a contest entry. Entry categories include papers, documentaries, websites, performances, or exhibits. Students can work individually or in groups of up to five students. They compete to qualify for school, regional, state, and national contests. We also provide training to help students do more in-depth research, and better understand what our judges are looking for.

Documentary Entry, Echo of Falling Water: The Inundation of Celilo Falls, from the 2019 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Documentary.

I’m so passionate about this program because students learn a variety of skills through National History Day, including strengthening their reading, research, and writing abilities. They select a historical topic they are personally interested in, which helps make history relevant and exciting. They flex their creativity muscles in developing an entry for the category of their choice. Research skills help with critical thinking and a build a more rigorous framework to analyze information. If they choose to work in a group, they learn collaboration skills. Explaining their work to adult judges helps them develop communication skills.

Performance Entry, Territorial Diplomacy: Seo Hui’s Compromise and Demands for the Goryeo Dynasty, from the 2018 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Performance.

If you are a parent, student, or educator who would like to learn more about participating in National History Day in North Dakota, please contact me, Dani Stuckle, at or 701.328.2794. Our pool of judges includes a wide-range of professional backgrounds. Judges work in teams where seasoned judges help new judges learn the ropes. Contact me as soon as possible to be added to the 2020 judge roster. The state contest will be on Friday, April 17, 2020 at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. The contest is open to the public.

If you need to know that our future is in good hands, come check these entries out. You’ll go away feeling very reassured that things will be okay. Learn more at or

The Persistent Myth of the Flat Earth and Why Historical Research Matters

In 1828 Washington Irving published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, in which the story’s hero audaciously proves to medieval Europeans the world is not flat. American school children ever since have learned the story of how Columbus “proved” Earth is round. Unfortunately for critical thinkers everywhere, Irving, famous for stories like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” exercised a great deal of artistic license. He was more interested in telling an electrifying story than an accurate history.

The truth is, Columbus’s peers generally believed Earth was round. In fact, the awareness of a round Earth dates back at least to Pythagoras during the 6th century BC. It is unfair to generations of students to mislead them with an unnecessary story that is debunked with some basic fact checking and historical thinking.

A boat going off the edge of water with a sea monster waiting for it

The edge of the (flat) Earth: Here There Be Monsters. Image courtesy of

Historical thinking involves repeatedly asking, “How do we know?” It is important to be skeptical and verify information using the same methods historians use to evaluate sources. Every day we encounter and process information that needs to be evaluated and analyzed for accuracy, perspective, and potential bias. We consume a great deal of content through social media, websites, newspapers, books, movies, television, and countless other media. It is crucial for society that citizens learn how to apply historical thinking skills to this material, especially when so much, like Irving’s, might have more in common with an article from The Onion instead of an encyclopedia entry. How is a person supposed to navigate all this material and trust what they read?

Earth as viewed from space

A photo of Earth from space looks pretty convincing to me. NASA image courtesy of the DSCOVR EPIC team.

Guiding people through historical thinking methods is part of my job as a museum educator. This requires a reader to understand the context of an issue, and consider multiple perspectives. When a historian sits down to read a book, reading the main text is not likely the first thing she does. A historian first focuses on the introduction to understand the point the author is trying to convey. They study the bibliography to get an idea of what sources the historian used and the breadth of their research. They also evaluate whether an author’s interpretation is supported by evidence from a variety of sources.

Before digging into the main content, we might also do a little bit of digging to learn more about the author. What are their credentials? Are they an expert on the topic? What overarching point, the thesis, are they trying to make?

Historical reading and thinking is a critical skill for readers of all ages to develop. By thinking historically and critically, we can catch Washington Irving’s mistake of playing fast and loose with the facts. We can also avoid the mistake of teaching false and misleading history. Let’s all practice thinking more like a historian and think critically about the media we are exposed to.

Historical Thinking Chart

Ask these questions of images, text, and other media to avoid falling for Washington Irving–style whoppers. Image courtesy of Stanford History Education Group.

Asking the Right Questions of History: How Do We Know?

How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time. How do you teach history? The same way. The history of us—North Dakotans, Americans, humans, the planet—is a really big story. We break it down, one bite at a time, into arbitrary regions and time periods to make it easier to process.

At places like the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck and our state historic sites, we try to have a comprehensive, encyclopedic approach to telling the story of North Dakota. If something has happened within the borders of the state to the people who have lived here (even for the briefest time), we try to capture that story when we can. We break the “big picture” story down into lots of little stories and themes. We try our best to identify these stories, preserve them, interpret them, and promote them. This means we also have to make some very hard decisions. We have committees that decide everything from what objects we collect to what history books get sold in the store. There are a lot of people who help decide which stories are highlighted on any given day at the State Museum.

Grey Whale jumping out of water

Grey Whale breaches the ocean.

My job as an outreach coordinator with the North Dakota Studies project is to help educators break this whale of a story down into bite-size pieces for their students. Rather than having educators try to teach all of North Dakota history in just a few weeks, we help teachers and their students to think like historians, so they find the bite-size stories that they are interested in and learn to think critically about how that story is interpreted.

Instead of having students memorize an encyclopedia’s worth of names, places, and dates, museum educators would rather students learn more about how historians think. How do we develop good questions to ask of the past? How do we find and analyze sources to know whether they are accurate? Does the evidence support our hypothesis? The key to making all of this relevant and interesting to students is the questions we ask. We want to ask questions of history that lead to investigation and analysis.

We want students to become history detectives. Instead of simply telling students what type of shelter people of the past used, we want them to think about what type of resources would have been available in a particular location. When we look at illustrations of tipis, earthlodges, forts, and sod cabins, we want them to think about why someone might be living in that particular style of housing. Why would someone build a fort? Why would a tipi be useful? Solving these puzzles is more interesting and engaging than simply memorizing textbook information. The single most useful question my colleagues and I ask of the content we work with is “How do we know?” Try using this question the next time you are visiting an exhibit or reading a book, and see if it leads to some detective work of your own.

Reading and writing in a book with a magnifying glass and pen

Solving history's mysteries: How do we know what we know?

History Odysseys: Connecting with Places Where Interesting Things Happened

We all have moments in our lives that, when we look back, seem to define something important about us. One of mine took place on a hot summer day when I was in grade school. I was standing in the basement of the Alfred Dickey Library in Jamestown, ND. I remember my mom arguing with the librarian over how many books I could take home. It was the beginning of summer vacation, and we had placed two big stacks of Nancy Drew books on the checkout counter. Despite my mother’s assurances, the librarian was not convinced I could read all of those books in just two weeks. The librarian finally caved when she realized we lived on a farm. The library had a policy to extend book loans to a month for farm families. I was tickled to take my bag full of books out to the car, and before we got home, I was deep into The Secret of the Old Clock. A week later my mom was pretty tickled to return to the library to exchange my pile of books for a new stack.

Aisle full of books in a library

My favorite place to be--a library. Credit: Glen Noble on Unsplash.

Having learned this story about me, it probably won’t surprise you at all that I eagerly said yes when I was asked to help this same library with a new exhibit about Louis L’Amour. L’Amour, who spent his formative years in Jamestown, wrote about how influential the Alfred Dicky Library was to him as a kid. He credited the library with helping to shape his unconventional education. It was an education that led a high school dropout to become a bestselling author. Freshly renovated, the library is putting together a small exhibit about L’Amour’s years in Jamestown. More than two decades after his death, he is still a popular author. People often come through town looking for more of his personal story.

Exterior view of the Alfred Dickey Library

The Alfred Dickey Library in Jamestown, ND. Credit: Warren Abrahamson (

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the library again and see the space where the planned exhibit will be installed. Walking up the flight of stairs into the library, seeing that beautiful stained glass, and smelling the library smell of my childhood brought a lot of memories flooding back for me. It’s moments like these that I remember how important the actual physical, tangible space of a place can be. You can read about a place in a book, but nothing can replace that experience of making a pilgrimage to that particular place. Smelling the smells. Hearing the sounds. Experiencing firsthand the scale of the space. This is an amazing experience that helps you better understand what really happen in a particular spot, at a particular time.

Contractors working in the Louis L'Amour Reading Room

Contractors finish work in the Louis L’Amour Reading Room at the Alfred Dickey Library in Jamestown, ND. Credit: Friends of the James River Valley Library System

Part of experiencing history, really getting into it, letting it seep into your pores and your imagination, is to make these pilgrimages, these odysseys, to the actual place where something interesting happened. The State Historical Society of North Dakota manages more than 50 museums and historic sites across the state where history really happened. Where will your journey take you?

Do Indians Still Live in Tipis? (and How to Find Answers to Other Questions about Native American Culture)

Working in the Communication & Education Division here at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, I find that a lot of people are looking for sources to learn more about Native American culture and history. However, they often aren’t sure where to start. People are really interested in this part of our state’s story, but often didn’t learn much, if anything, in school. Not that they remember anyway. I like to direct them to the Essential Understandings.

North Dakota Native American Essential Understandings

A graphic rendering of the Essential Understandings found at

This is a relatively new resource from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction available through This website makes videos and other information available to classrooms across the state. The videos feature elders from each of the reservations in North Dakota being interviewed about tribal traditions, stories, and history. The site also has lesson plans developed and vetted in conjunction with the tribes. The Essential Understandings identify the primary themes that tribes and educators want to make sure to convey to all K-12 students. The idea is to make Native American curriculum integrated into all subjects taught in school from math to music to science and history.

There are also great resources through the North Dakota Studies website where a person of any age or ability can begin to learn about the Native American tribes historically associated with what is now the state of North Dakota. The fourth grade unit for ND Studies is available at The eighth grade curriculum at is also full of opportunities to learn about thousands of years of North Dakota history, up to the present day. There are also four digitized books covering each tribe that has a reservation based in North Dakota at These are all fantastic resources available free online through ND Studies at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

American Indians of North Dakota book cover

The fourth grade unit on American Indians of North Dakota.

For learners with a more academic interest, the History of North Dakota by Elwyn Robinson is also available free online through the University of North Dakota at Robinson is thought by many who study North Dakota to be one of the most influential scholars to tackle our state’s history. His interpretation continues to have a huge impact on how we think about the history and culture of North Dakota.

Métis case containing quilt, saddle, and clothing

A display about Métis culture in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples at the ND Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck

We also like to encourage visitors to come and experience the exhibits and programs at the 57 historic sites and museums managed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, sites at a number of state parks, national parks, and the reservations themselves. The United Tribes International Powwow, held annually the first weekend after Labor Day in Bismarck, is an excellent opportunity to learn about the culture and history of tribes from around the country.

A Day without History: How your personal history connects with a larger historical narrative

Imagine waking up each morning with amnesia. No recollection of what you like and don’t like. No memory of what matters to you. Do you practice yoga or cook a big breakfast for your family? Do you go to church or pack for a vacation? Do you have a random job or are you on a specific career path? How would you go about your day if you didn’t have the accumulation of personal knowledge that makes you “you?” This is what it would be like to wake up one day without the identity our personal history provides us. Imagine a day without history.

Opened book with an old photo on it

Our personal belongings help tell the story of who we are individually and how we are part of larger communities. Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

Everything has a history, including us. Your individual story, as well as that of your family, your community, and your country influences every decision you make each and every day. Experiences and memories serve as the building blocks of our identities, but our story is much more than that. It is an accumulation of who our family members are; our relationships with relatives; the family stories we’ve heard; our genealogies. These all contribute to what we know about our personal and collective history. How our family history fits into a larger community history and a larger historical narrative is just the beginning.

Rows of old photos

Family photos and other documents are an important source of the historical record. Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

In order to understand all the ways history affects our lives, it is important to follow the work of historians who work in colleges, museums, and other organizations. By reading the books they publish, listening to the stories they tell, and attending programs and exhibits they develop, anyone can learn how to tap into a deeper understanding of this history. Studying history helps us understand not only how the past affects the present and future, but also the larger picture of how society works. It tells the story of the human experience and helps us understand our individual purpose. History tells the story of our own lives. It helps provide us with an identity.

Staff at the State Historical Society of North Dakota is closely involved in this important work throughout the state. We do research, write papers, publish books and articles, develop exhibits and programs, document personal histories, and teach other people how to do this work themselves. We can talk to students about the work we do, and we can show you how to come to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum or some of our state historic sites and do your own research. We want to help you discover all the fascinating and unique stories that together make up the history of North Dakota.

Old books

The work of historians through books, exhibits, and programs tells a story about our world that connects us all to each other and makes history relevant to us all. Photo by Fred Pixlab on Unsplash

History is all around us. It helps anchor us within our larger community and country. It connects us to one another. It is inseparable from who we are as people. The work of history professionals, including those of us working at the State Historical Society, can help you better understand your own personal story. The study of history is relevant to our daily lives. Just try to imagine who you would be without it.