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.

From the first step inside On the Edge of the Wind: Native Storytellers & the Land at the State Museum in Bismarck “you get the sense this truly is another world,” says Exhibitions Manager David Newell.

Produced by the North Dakota Council on the Arts in association with the State Historical Society, the new exhibition, which opens to the public Thursday, explores connections between cultural practices, regional landscapes, and tribal oral narratives. It’s the result of a 10-year project by State Folklorist Troyd Geist to photograph landscapes sacred to Native American tribal nations that share geography with North Dakota and to record Indigenous stories relayed by elders and knowledge keepers related to these significant and spiritually powerful places. As audiences move through the Governors Gallery, they will encounter unique sensory experiences allowing them to immerse themselves in the featured stories, landscapes, and artifacts.

With that in mind, I asked Newell to give us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the elements that set this exhibit apart.

1. The Power of Plants

As you enter the exhibition, free-standing walls following the curve of the Missouri River guide you first to the flowers and plants section. This area inspires you to think “differently” about nature, Newell points out. Images of elders collecting botanicals to be used for medicinal and spiritual purposes can be seen along with Ojibway herbalist and artist Marvin Baldeagle Youngman’s exquisite beaded medicine bags. (Baldeagle Youngman is also pictured in one of the photographs.) The bags, adorned with realistic nature-inspired designs, depict traditional medicines such as wild rose and yarrow. At four smelling stations you can even lift a flap and take in the aromas of cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and mint.

Sweetgrass and mint smelling stations in the exhibit’s plant section.

An adjacent display of tobacco, pipes, and accessories speaks to that plant’s importance in connecting people to the spiritual realm. “Pipes act as a communication device,” Newell explains. Prior to the exhibit installation, an elder conducted an outdoor ceremony making an offering to the land and blessing the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Part of this involved the blessing of red tobacco ties (small pouches stuffed with tobacco), which were placed in the gallery’s four cardinal directions. These will remain in the space for the duration of the exhibition.

2. Guided Imagery and the Medicine Wheel

Standing in the center of a Medicine Wheel representing the four cardinal directions, visitors look at screens showing the view in those directions from the summit of Butte St. Paul. Eight earphones are available for individuals or groups to listen as Dr. Linda Gourneau, a family medicine physician, narrates a five-minute guided imagery experience of hiking the butte accompanied by flute music. By linking the trail walk with the Native American concept of the Medicine Wheel and its role in promoting well-being and balance, the space imparts a sense of calm and “transports you to someplace else,” Newell says.

3. Northern Lights Experience

This sense of calm continues seamlessly in a nearby space featuring a projection of the northern lights and the sounds of night animals interspersed with flute music by Mandan/Hidatsa storyteller Keith Bear. (Fittingly, Bear’s Native name O’Mashi! Ryu Ta translates to Bright Light That Waves in the North Sky.) Here, visitors can sit on benches while immersing themselves in a visual and aural experience. Newell dubs this space “a contemplation zone.” Quotes from storytellers remind the viewer of the interconnectivity of life and the spiritual power of the natural world.

4. Story Spaces

Exhibitions Manager David Newell demonstrates one of five kiosks, where visitors can watch Native elders recount traditional stories. The knowledge keepers have been granted the right to tell these stories, which can also be viewed in the ND Heritage Center’s Great Plains Theater.

The heart of the exhibit is the story spaces, where visitors can watch short videos of the elders and knowledge keepers recounting their narratives about significant landscapes. (As variations of the same story may exist, those on display here represent the individual storyteller’s version.) Interpretive panels provide an overview of each story along with comments and quotes from the elders. Surrounding the kiosks are Geist and Swiss photographer Barbara Hauser’s stunning digital photographs on aluminum panels, as well as associated objects and artifacts, most of which are part of the North Dakota Council on the Arts’ collection.

Bison skull and sage from Buffalo Lodge hill in North Dakota. This site figures prominently in a story told by Ojibway knowledge keeper Alex DeCoteau about a boy who sacrificed himself so “the spirit of the buffalo” would always be found there to guide and bless the people.

Newell stops in front of a case containing a large cottonwood disk showing the star-shaped pith at its core. “This is my favorite story in the whole exhibit,” he says, referencing the Dakotah account of “a little star that wants to come down to the earth and live amongst the people because they make it so happy.” When the other stars tell him he can only do so if he hides himself, the star “hides inside a tree. And he’s still there.”

State Folklorist Troyd Geist personally cut this wooden disk used to help illustrate the story of “The Star in the Cottonwood Tree” from a fallen tree along the shores of the Missouri River.

The spaces surrounding the story kiosks are meant to immerse the visitor in the narration on the screens, allowing the words on the panels to recede and the experience to “take over,” says Newell. Twenty offering stations, interpolated throughout the exhibition, contain an abalone shell smudge bowl filled with sage accompanied by a small red pouch of tobacco as a sign of respect and gratitude. In some instances, elements from the narratives have been incorporated into this standard offering. For example, Hunkpapa Lakota elder Anna Littleghost told of the importance of keeping the supernatural Little People (said to inhabit the area around Spirit Lake) happy and noted their yen for red jellybeans, which she includes in her offerings to them. Newell sifted through six bags of jellybeans to procure the necessary amount of spicy cinnamon and red cherry jellybeans for the offering station in this area.

Tobacco pouch icons on a story menu reflect a modern digital representation of the traditional tobacco offering to the storyteller.

The exhibit concludes with a wall of prayers from the storytellers as they give thanks for the Earth's “power and energy” (Mary Louise Defender Wilson, Dakotah/Hidatsa) and meditate on the importance of stories to provide “the connection, the ancestral lineage all the way back to Creator” (Debbie Gourneau, Ojibway).

The sacred and contemplative nature of the landscapes and stories influenced all aspects of the exhibition’s design and organization, from its low-lighting and tonal qualities to the decision not to include the locations of referenced sites.

“We’ve made a conscious effort to respect the narratives of the storytellers and the sacred nature of the sites,” says Newell. “We are deeply appreciative for the trust these elders granted us.”

On the Edge of the Wind: Native Storytellers & the Land runs from April 27 through October 2024 in the Governors Gallery at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.