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. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

The Sitting Bull Robe Saga: Exploring the Lifecycle of an International Loan During a Pandemic

Part of museum work is loaning objects to other institutions. The State Museum currently has 22 active loans, most of which are in-state and straightforward. But when an international border and a pandemic are involved, the situation can get a bit more complicated. Here’s what happened when an art gallery in Canada requested a rare artifact for an exhibit a few years back.

Birth: In late 2018, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, requested the loan of a significant piece of our shared history: a buffalo robe painted by Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull painted the robe between 1877 and 1881 while seeking asylum in what is now Saskatchewan. It is the only known buffalo hide painting by Sitting Bull in existence. The robe, which Sitting Bull initially gave to Canadian trader Gus Heddrich, entered the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s collection in 1945 after Heddrich and his wife died.

Buffalo robe painting by Sitting Bull. SHSND 10117

When institutions request loans from the state’s collection, some boring but important paperwork must be completed. Collections staff reviewed the reason for the loan, the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s exhibit plans for the painting, and details about the gallery’s light levels and climate control. The loan request noted: “This artwork could be considered one of the most significant Indigenous paintings completed within Saskatchewan but has never been exhibited in Saskatchewan. It would be of enormous interest to the descendants of Sitting Bull’s people as well as the larger community.” State Historical Society staff agreed—the loan was approved, and its journey began.

Transport: Some not-so-boring paperwork followed. Our registrars (aka paperwork gurus) exchanged over 100 emails with the gallery’s customs broker, U.S. and Canadian customs officials, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel to complete all the forms required to transport the robe safely across the border. Due to the robe’s cultural and historical significance it required a courier, that is, a personal escort on its travels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cost of international fine art couriers is a bit prohibitive, so State Historical Society staff decided to make the trek with the robe themselves. The robe was carefully packed in a large shipping crate, and in June 2019, two staff members made the six-hour drive from Bismarck to Regina, Canada.

All packed up and on the road.

Exhibit: From June 2019 to April 2020, Sitting Bull’s hide painting featured prominently in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibition. The exhibit explored the diverse ways Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in the province related to land, and how objects carry histories and stories. You can learn more about the exhibit on the MacKenzie’s website. Staff at the art gallery developed a variety of programming around the buffalo robe, including public talks with First Nations members. Artist and Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill was at the gallery to welcome the robe on behalf of the Lakota people of Saskatchewan. He also shared some of the meanings behind the images on the hide painting in this video.

View of Sitting Bull’s robe in The Permanent Collection: Walking with Saskatchewan exhibit. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Opening event with Lakota Knowledge Keeper Wayne Goodwill on June 20, 2019. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Extension: The loan’s original end date was set for May 30, 2020. Agency staff had their passports ready, but the universe had other ideas. The U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential travel for nineteen months. Between March 2020 and November 2021, the State Historical Society and the MacKenzie signed two loan extensions. This additional time led to unique opportunities, including extra months for visitors to view the robe. During the robe’s extended stay, the gallery’s “Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth” class used it as inspiration for a video game project that combined Indigenous oral storytelling with interactive design. From December 2020 to April 2021, the robe and the students’ work were showcased in the exhibit Travelling Memory: Sitting Bull’s Robe, The Mackenzie’s Art School, and the Art and Concepts of Game Design for Youth.

The Travelling Memory exhibit highlighted a video game project by eighth-grade students at the MacKenzie Art School. The project gave audience members an interactive way to experience the story of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Photo by Don Hall, courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery

Return: Since every North Dakotan and Canadian knows that safe travel in the winter (or even spring) is no guarantee, arrangements to pick up the robe were made for early June 2022. Once again, the registrars emailed and traded paperwork like crazy to ensure a pain-free border crossing.

Reunited, and it feels so good! The robe was patiently waiting for agency staff at the MacKenzie Art Gallery collections storage area.

Sitting Bull’s buffalo hide painting returned to Bismarck on June 4, 2022. Previously, it was exhibited at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum for over thirty years. But continuous display, exposure to light, and repeated handling is stressful on natural materials. So for the foreseeable future it will be resting in storage to help preserve the colored pigment and the condition of the hide.

State Historic Sites Keep Me On My Toes As The Summer Season Begins

Another summer season is upon us! It is the most exciting time of the year. Every day when I get to work fresh opportunities present themselves. This is part of what I like about being a historic sites manager. It is never the same. Sure, there are routine tasks I do regularly, but most of the time I walk into work with a different agenda for the day than the one I end up with. New projects, mysteries, and challenges arise to keep me on my toes. Most days, I do not get to my planned agenda before my phone rings, and we are off to tackle some new adventure.

In fall 2020, my phone rang. It was a call about upgrading the playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site near Grenora. The decades-old playground equipment at the site was from the time when the State Historical Society oversaw both historic sites and state parks. The outdated equipment was no longer safe. For the next several months, I worked with officials from Divide County to secure funding and design a new playground set for the site. As part of the project, I applied for several grants, including ones from the John & Elaine Andrist Fund and the Outdoor Heritage Fund. This past winter, the equipment was installed. On June 11 we held a grand opening event, where the community could try out the equipment, and the staff of the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center hosted hands-on games.

The old playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site near Grenora.

New playground equipment at Writing Rock State Historic Site.

One of the biggest improvements we are working on this year is installing an elevator at the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site. It is not every day you can make a historic structure Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. Installing the elevator will allow visitors who are unable to climb the stairs to the courtroom to still attend programs there or even court, should the Southeast Judicial District need to use the space again for jury trials as was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a massive project that will significantly improve the use of this beautiful building. Plus, it also has revealed some fun little tidbits. We never expected to find beadboard under the paneling of the judge’s platform. We have not seen beadboard anywhere in the courthouse before. Could it be that there was more beadboard in the courthouse, and it was covered when all the tin went up to hide the damage resulting from the 1916 courthouse fire?

Workers from RDA Construction discovered beadboard paneling under the judge’s platform at the Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site.

The floor in the former superintendent's office was removed to make room for the new elevator at the courthouse.

A construction worker stands in the new doorway, which will serve as a second entrance and access point to the elevator.

These are just a couple of the new things we have been working on at state historic sites. We are also in the process of acquiring a helicopter for the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown. The 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site has several programs planned for the summer, including talks with law enforcement. Fort Totten State Historic Site will feature concerts this month and is working on more events to come. The Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is hosting a prototype exhibit for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library for a limited time. All in all, it’s set to be an excellent summer to check out our wonderful state historic sites.

The Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is hosting a prototype exhibit for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Why Archivists Love Microfilm

If you’ve ever had a conversation with our reference staff about using the State Archives’ collections for research, you probably heard about or even used microfilm. Most of our popular collections, such as our newspapers and naturalization records, are filmed and stored on microfilm for easy access in the reading room.

Microform is the reproductive process used to produce materials at an incredibly small size. There were originally four types of microform: microfilm, microfiche, super-fiche, and microprints. Microfilm and Microfiche are the only two still created today; here in the State Archives you will most likely find microfilm reels.

Microforms became popular for preserving and storing old newspapers and records in the 1930s and continued to be widely used in businesses, archives, and universities until the 1990s when the PDF became an easy and searchable format for all users. But microforms are still a well-used and well-loved resource for us in the State Archives. Indeed, there are a number of ways using microfilm and microfiche support our archival values of preservation, storage, and context within collections:

1) Preservation: Over time the chemicals used in mass-produced paper causes it to become yellow and brittle, and the paper starts to fall apart. Newsprint paper from the 18th and 19th centuries is especially vulnerable to this decay. By filming the State Archives’ newspaper collection and using the microfilm copies instead of the original for research and reference requests, we can prevent further damage to the material. Another great feature of microfilm is that it is a very stable medium, in that the material of the film does not start to deteriorate as fast as other formats such as paper, which can last about 50 years, or digital file formats, which are sometimes only compatible for 10 years or less. Experts say that microfilm can last for over 500 years if stored in the proper environment. Having a microfilmed copy for researchers and staff to use again and again helps us preserve the original copy for future generations.

An original copy of the July 14, 1864, edition of the Frontier Scout, the first newspaper published in what is now North Dakota.

A scan of the same edition of the Frontier Scout from the microfilm roll.

2) Storage: It may seem obvious, but microfilm is a simple storage form that can contain tons of document images while still being compact and lightweight. One roll of microfilm that is 35 mm in size can hold up to 800 newspaper pages, which means multiple years of a newspaper can often be found on one roll. This is also helpful for storing very large collections such as the U.S. census or marriage records. It is much easier for staff and researchers to move and use a small lightweight roll as opposed to boxes full of heavy paper.

Here a microfilm roll is juxtaposed with a physical box of newspapers. A single role of microfilm can contain multiple years of a given newspaper.

3) Context: Archival collections are organized and best researched as a whole so the creator’s original intention and the purpose of the information is as complete as can be. Digitized archival searches that only return individual documents may remove important context. Case in point: If you only look at the one document or article you searched for, you don’t get the information you did not search for. A microfilm machine does not have a search function and won’t allow you to skip the surrounding pages easily, thereby preserving the wider context and allowing facts and information to be studied in the whole rather than in a vacuum.

Finally, the goal of all archives work is to balance preserving and caring for original documents with providing the best and easiest access to the collection in question. Microfilm may appear to be a dated technology to some, but it still fulfills this objective well and is a valuable resource to the State Archives and researchers everywhere.

On the Edge of the Wind: A New State Museum Exhibit in the Making

The Audience Engagement & Museum staff is currently working in partnership with the North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA) to develop On the Edge of the Wind: Sacred Land, Mythic Tales, a 2023 exhibition to follow Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style in the Governors Gallery at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. On the Edge of the Wind is a rare opportunity to gain understanding of sacred sites and oral traditions associated with tribal cultures in both North Dakota and South Dakota.

One site featured in the exhibition is Buffalo Lodge. In the early 19th century, it was the site of the largest Sun Dance in North America with more than 1,500 celebrants. Photographs by Barbara Hauser and Troyd Geist

The Navajo and Hopi tribes of the American Southwest celebrate the concept of “walking in beauty.” This same concept manifests itself among the tribes of the northern Plains in the idea that life is a ceremony, and one should seek balance through the integration of connectiveness and awareness. The concept of life as a ceremony is repeated throughout the stories explored in On the Edge of the Wind.

To recognize and honor the importance of the various sites, the exhibit focuses on traditional stories that establish the significance of place, rather than pinpointing actual sites. The narratives shared are told by respected storytellers who have been granted the right to tell the stories. Every effort is being made to respect both the cultures and the sanctity of the sites detailed. Stories were shared with appropriate permissions and in accordance with tribal guidelines.

An important organizing principle of the exhibition is the idea that there are no definitive stories in the oral tradition. Variations reveal themselves, and the same story may be told differently from family to family and from community to community. This exhibition captures each individual storyteller’s version of a particular tale.

On the Edge of the Wind has seven major thematic sections. Key to the exhibition are 118 large-format color photographs printed on aluminum. The photographs are primarily landscapes. Groupings of the photographs define the individual interpretive segments. Each section is also accompanied by objects supporting the narrative. Some of the objects were newly commissioned by NDCA for the exhibition. Several are from the collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Decorative ceremonial drum crafted by Laidman Fox Jr. The drum represents the Earth’s heartbeat, believed to reside within Heart Butte. Courtesy NDCA

Thunder Butte is the site of a traditional story in which the hunter Packs Antelope fights a heroic battle on behalf of the thunderbirds. Photo by Barbara Hauser

Components of the exhibition have been in development since early 2019. North Dakota’s state folklorist Troyd Geist spent months in the field working with tribal elders and storytellers collecting their traditional stories along with background information and invaluable interpretive content.

Geist captured the recorded sessions in more than five hours of narrative videos. His intent is to share select stories with our museum audience but even more importantly to document the narratives of contemporary elders for future generations. They form a valuable archive. When the exhibition is complete, Geist intends for the NDCA to gift the recordings to the associated tribal communities.

The video recordings will be accessed at five touch screen kiosks located throughout the gallery and on the State Museum’s website after the exhibition opens.

Beaded Ojibwe “octopus bag” crafted by Marvin Baldeagle Youngman. Despite its name, the shape of the bag represents a bison with four legs, the notched ends mimicking hooves. The bag is intended for carrying medicinal herbs and plants. Courtesy NDCA

Fashion & Function closes the Sunday following Thanksgiving 2022. After its deinstallation, we will begin installing On the Edge of the Wind. The new exhibit is scheduled to open in mid-March 2023 and run through November 2024.

Put a coat on it? The Ins and Outs of Repainting Buildings at State Historic Sites

As a site supervisor, I am entrusted with the care of two historic state properties in Bismarck: the Former Governors’ Mansion and Camp Hancock. These two sites comprise four historic buildings, each with well over a century of paint on the exterior. Time, weather, and people all take their toll on surfaces, which need repainting from time to time. When this occurs, we do not necessarily match the color of paint on the surface because paint fades, and colors change with age. Instead, we strive to match the structure’s historical paint colors.

As supervisor of the Former Governors’ Mansion and Camp Hancock state historic sites, my job entails a lot of paint!

Chipped paint on the back porch of the Former Governors’ Mansion exposed the original 1884 maroon color.

In the case of the most recent repainting by professionals in 2012 of the Former Governors’ Mansion, we did our best to match the colors to those the state initially painted the house after it was purchased in 1893. To determine what the paint looked like over the years, we carefully sanded through the layers of accumulated paint using a process known as bullseye sampling. The sampling was carried out in multiple spots protected from the elements, with samples then matched to a color swatch or taken to the paint store and matched using a spectrophotometer.

Bullseye paint sampling inside the Former Governors’ Mansion revealed the color of the upstairs hall trim from 1884 through the 1960s.

Did we get it 100% right? Since exposure to the elements can cause colors to shift on even the most protected surfaces (and the underlying and overlying paint may also alter a color’s appearance), perfection is unattainable. In this and other instances, we do our best and hope the color endures well into the future. Still, we keep in mind that inevitably best practices will evolve as understanding of historic preservation and access to new technologies increases. Imagine a world with programmable paint that could change color on demand and show the Former Governors’ Mansion across different time periods. You could see what the mansion looked like in a variety of iterations, including the 1884 maroon and green, the 1893 green and green, the 1903 yellow and maroon, or even the post-1930 white and black. Now that’s what I’d call bringing history to life!

Today computer algorithms can analyze black-and-white photographs, such as this circa 1885 Former Governors’ Mansion image, and reproduce them in color. In this instance, the computer did a good job of guessing the maroon paint color but missed the dark green trim, which it rendered in grey. SHSND SA 2005-P-006-00001

In summer 2020, Former Governors’ Mansion staff spent hundreds of hours repainting the house, which appears here in its 1893 colors.

Taxidermy Critters and Wendy’s Napkin Art: Surprising Finds from the Inventory of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center

During the 2021 legislative session, management of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan in Washburn transferred from the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department to the State Historical Society. To grasp the full extent of what the agency had just obtained, we needed to perform a complete inventory of the sites’ collections. With laptops, cameras, and steely resolve in tow, our collections staff descended on the Interpretive Center and got to work on a project that will entail multiple visits. During our initial trips, we came across some fun, quirky, and surprising items in storage. What follows is a sampling of some of our more interesting finds.

1. This box looked like many others in the Interpretive Center storage. Any guesses as to what could be inside?

The contents of this box were anything but ordinary.

Based on the wobble and weight of the box when removed from the top of a cabinet, we thought it might contain a piece of pottery with a bowling pin-style bottom. Imagine our surprise when we lifted the lid and saw the beady little eyes of three small taxidermy critters: a gopher (with a face that looked like it had run headlong into a brick wall), a weasel, and a mole. Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center only has a few natural history objects, so we were certainly not expecting to be greeted by these curious creatures

Some of our cute taxidermy friends. SHSND

2. In a box filled with Bismarck artist Vern Erickson’s sketchbooks, we found this scrapbook labeled “Napkin Art.” Like us you’re probably wondering, “What is napkin art?”

SHSND

It turns out napkin art is exactly what it sounds like. Attached to the pages of Erickson’s scrapbook were napkins from North Dakota restaurants filled with (mostly pen) sketches of Native Americans and horses, though he also included a few examples of place mat art. Napkins from Donutland and Wendy’s feature descriptions of what colors the artist would like to use in his painting of the sketch as well as other notes. Considering the medium, some sketches are very detailed, putting our doodles of fancy “S” and anime eyes to shame.

Artist Vern Erickson’s detailed sketches of American Indians on horseback adorn napkins and place mats found in one scrapbook. SHSND

3. A box of Altoids in a collections space? We all know food and drink is not allowed in collections spaces, right? So what could be in this tin?

SHSND

Given the Interpretive Center’s plethora of lead shot, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the tin was full of tiny lead balls. Indeed, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery is a key collecting theme for both the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site. These shot are in remarkably good condition compared to some of the other lead shot already inventoried and had not turned white due to oxidation.

Not exactly the “curiously strong” contents you might have expected. SHSND

The inventory is not yet complete, so we wouldn’t be surprised if additional interesting finds await us. Since there are many more objects at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center than we initially estimated, we look forward to other fun discoveries.


This blog was co-authored with Elise Dukart.