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.

The Heritage Art Tunnel: Engaging Audiences With Public Art

Everyone can benefit from being conscious of ways to attract and engage audiences. It doesn’t matter who you are. In every aspect of your life, whether it be family, social, spiritual, work, play, or recreation, it is valuable to hold your audience in high regard. By recognizing your audience or audiences while striving to attract and engage them you will increase the impact of the services you provide. One approach to enticing a new audience is to reach them when they least expect it. Public art can have such an effect.

Two recently unveiled wall murals in the Heritage Art Tunnel that passes under State Street in Bismarck are good examples of public art in action. The tunnel connects Myron Atkinson Park located on the east side of State Street with the North Dakota State Capitol Complex, including the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

A walking tunnel under a road is shown with a sidewalk leading up to it

This unassuming tunnel at the edge of the state Capitol complex has been transformed into an outdoor art gallery. Photo by Melissa Gordon

A walking tunnel under road can be seen from two different views showing the murals on each wall. The murals have a green background with many North Dakota-related elements.

Artist’s rendition of the Heritage Art Tunnel murals. Photo by Melissa Gordon

The brainchild of the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program, the Heritage Art Tunnel took several years to complete. Because the tunnel not only connects Bismarck municipal property with the state Capitol grounds and goes under a city street also designated as a U.S. highway, multiple agencies needed to grant permissions before the public art project could move forward. Design concept development, funding, the involvement of a capable artist, and community support from organizations like Dakota West Arts Council, the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and the State Historical Society were all part of nurturing this project, finished in October 2021, to fruition.

A middle-aged woman with long, dark hair and wire framed glasses smiles for the camera

Tunnel artist Melissa Gordon. Courtesy mel-ink studio

Initially, a “timeline” was the only guidance given to Melissa Gordon, a Bismarck public artist, who both embraced the project and elevated it to the next level. Melissa merged her concept of “connections” with a graphic representation of “circuits” in a circuit board and developed a storyboard that had the potential to tell the history of North Dakota. As this merger took shape it became apparent the North Dakota Studies curriculum developed for fourth grade public school students could offer guidance on content, color palette, and other connections that could turn these murals into a visual learning venue. As the concepts coalesced and became more refined, exhibits in the State Museum helped inform Melissa’s final designs, as you can see in the images below.

On the let is a taxidermied bison, and on the right is a painted image that was inspired from the image on the left.

Artifacts from the State Museum such as this bison, left, served as inspiration for the art tunnel’s murals. SHSND 4179.2

I encourage you to experience the art for yourself. The Heritage Art Tunnel’s south side mural is organized around the concepts of geography and agriculture; while the north side illustrates energy. Spend a little time in the tunnel. Take guidance from the connections you see to make connections to your own heritage and history using ND Studies and the exhibits in the State Museum.

A connection I made recently was to a blog post from C3 Teachers, a collaborative effort of teachers helping students learn the academic content needed to become ready for the three Cs—college, career, and civic life. In that blog is a street art-related Inquiry Design Model (IDM), which includes concise “questions, tasks, and sources that define a curricular inquiry.” This IDM asks the question: “Does public art make communities better?”

An approach using IDMs is also being implemented in ND Studies. This will allow teachers to experiment with their teaching practices while simultaneously supporting students as they question, analyze, and collaborate in authentic social studies experiences. This distinctive approach to creating instructional materials gives teachers flexibility to develop relevant lessons that provide creative questions, tasks, and sources for North Dakota students as they prepare for their futures. All this is to say that public art projects like the Heritage Art Tunnel can spark unique and transformative learning experiences. Each of us should look at our potential audiences and the connections we make both with them and everything around us, striving in creative ways to take informed action toward a better future for all.

Developing Curricula about Japanese American Internment

A colleague at the ND Heritage Center recently recommended author Ross Coen’s Fu Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America, describing the relatively obscure World War II story of unmanned paper balloons flown from Japan to North America using only high-level atmospheric currents-- the jet stream-- as propellants. The ultimate goal of these balloon flights was to ignite forest fires across Western America and Canada that would create terror and divert potential military personnel to homeland firefighting.

Before hearing of this book, I knew nothing of this action. As I read it, I became more fascinated with little-known stories related to people of Japanese descent and their involvement (or not) in wartime activity.

Little did I know that this book would soon lead me to another little-known story of World War II, namely Japanese American internment. As I was finishing Fu Go a few months ago, I received a call from Dennis Neumann, public information director at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC). Dennis requested that I become involved in a project being organized by the National Japanese American Historical Society to develop a high school curriculum related to Japanese internment in America during World War II.

Guard Tower

00996-00002 Fort Lincoln Entrance Gate

The National Japanese American Historical Society was forming a team to investigate national resources including historic places, stories, images, and other archival material in the visioning process for “Untold Stories: The Department of Justice Internment Teacher Education Project.” Few people realize that many Japanese American people were interned at a camp in Bismarck, North Dakota, during the war. This camp, called Fort Lincoln Internment Camp, was located on land that is now the site of UTTC’s campus, and some of those internment camp buildings remain.

Fort Lincoln Entrance Gate

00996-00002 Fort Lincoln Entrance Gate

The team of invited scholars, educators, and cultural interpreters from across the country came together for three days of presentations and discussion about this interesting topic. Their team of curriculum developers helped us consider how high school students across the country would find this story relevant. We discussed historical trauma, cultural suppression, and even bullying as we explored ways this topic might support cultural healing and recovery using public discourse. At the team meeting, I shared some of our State Archives resources including photographs, newspaper articles, and a diary kept by an internee at the internment camp. You can read “Internment Diary of Toyojiro Suzuki” (translated into English) at

I also shared details of how content, activities, and resources related to our North Dakota Studies eighth grade and fourth grade curriculums are delivered online.

The outcome of this project will be a high school curriculum that may be available online. There was discussion relating to developing opportunities for teachers across the country to participate in workshops, visit the sites of the internment camps, and view documentaries relating survivors’ stories and the impacts to their families.

UTTC is interested in recognizing that the impacts of government policies relating to Native Americans such as removal, relocation, and the formation of reservations have many parallels to those of Japanese Americans interned at the same physical site during WWII. It’s a fascinating beginning to a project worth exploring further.

Programs Can Take Various Forms...

For more than 30 years I’ve used American Indian tipis as a tool to help students of all ages better appreciate the sophistication of the cultures that lived on the northern plains.


I have set up tipis in schoolyards, at Boy Scout camporees, on state and national historic sites, in public and private spaces, and in museums in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Virginia, and across North Dakota.

Setting up poles for a tipi

I’ve even helped staff understand the process of taking a buffalo hide tipi down as we de-installed the Main Gallery of the Heritage Center in 2013.

When I present a program about the building of a tipi, it usually is a hands-on learning experience. I carry on a conversation with the audience. I ask for their assistance with identifying poles, bringing them to me, and (with my direction) figuring out where to place them.

We tie the poles together, raise and fasten the cover, and then enter the tipi. There is always a sense of awe when one enters a tipi for the first time and raises one’s eyes to the sky.

Children and Erik gathered in a tipi

The tipi is a dwelling created by stretching a cover of canvas or tanned bison hides over a framework of straight wooden poles. The poles are tied together in a specific pattern around a foundation made of three or four poles, depending upon tribal practices. The general form of the tipi is conical. Although the top of the cone of the tipi may be 16 or 18 feet off the ground, erecting it is a relatively easy process.

Setting up a tipi

At the top there is an opening through which rising smoke from a small central fire can escape. Extensions in the cover on either side of this opening can be adjusted depending upon wind direction, creating a relatively pleasant environment inside the structure.

Doug Wurtz, a volunteer with the State Historical Society, has helped me several times as I’ve given tipi raising programs for students or the public. As Doug became more interested, he began to experiment with a 1-inch=1-foot scale model of a tipi. As Doug’s models got more sophisticated, he became interested in the physics and the aerodynamics of the tipi. This led Doug to create a kit called “Tipi in a Box” which has since developed into a prototype that could be used by a classroom teacher to offer learning to their students about the tipi. As Doug and I evaluated the “Tipi in a Box” project, we became aware that teachers would have difficulty using the kit without a narrative to direct them.

Doug and I began the process of developing the narrative by videotaping me describing the kit and its intended use. During that taping we realized that some of the detail, such as how the knots are tied, would be lost without additional video.

Although this project is still a work in progress, Doug and I have learned many lessons related to building a quality educational product. We look forward to continuing this and additional projects that can provide insights into the technologies and lifeways of native peoples.