On to Bismarck – with a brief stop. August 11-18, 2010

The trip from Fargo to Bismarck was only about 175 miles, straight across Rte. 94. So we decided to make a stop in Jamestown to visit the National Buffalo Museum. Quite frankly, we didn’t stop for the museum. We stopped because we had learned that they had three albino buffalos among their herd.

Upon arrival at the entrance, Dot ran in to find out where we could park and turn around our 40 foot house. The attendant gave her directions, but she could hardly contain herself. “When I came in this morning, they were all together,” she gasped. “I ran back to the car to get my camera!” Her luck was our luck, too, as you can see in the pictures below.

When Dot put the pics out on her Schip hotline, her friend — whose nom de plume is Wakan, the Lakota Sioux word for sacred– sent us the story of White Buffalo Woman. It’s an uplifting story, and we hope you’ll take the time to read it here. The White Buffalo was considered the Wakan Tanka: Great Spirit.

Our trip ended in Menoken, about 10 miles east of downtown Bismarck, the state capital. The campground was another parking lot, but this one was surrounded on three sides by cornfields. It had spotless facilities but nothing else, and about a third of the occupants were working in the area. More than anything, we needed a safe place to park and explore, and that’s what we got.

The Missouri River splits Bismarck and its sister city, Mandan. (Incidentally, every incorporated unit in North Dakota is called a city, no matter its size or population.) There are two Wal-Marts, virtually every chain restaurant ever created, and every service you could require. There is also a significant amount of Lewis & Clark history, and we absorbed as much as we could.

Fort Abraham Lincoln
This was our first stop, because it combined Native American history and migration history. The land was originally occupied by the Mandan, from the early 17th century until 1781. The Mandan were a peaceful, agricultural people who supplemented their garden bounty with buffalo meat. Their village here was On-A-Slant, named for the terrain. Like most such villages, it was bordered on one side by a difficult if not impenetrable landscape – in this case, the confluence of the Missouri and Heart Rivers. On the vulnerable side, a defensive wall (palisade) was erected with a ditch outside of it. The housing units were earth mounds, built slightly below the surface and towering above it about 15 feet. Constructed from large cottonwood beams, they were covered by 6-12 inches of earth. Each housed a family unit, perhaps 12-20 people. They were owned by the woman of the house. They were built close together, and it appears through archeology and topography study that this village consisted of approximately 85 units. Five earth mounds have been reconstructed to preserve this history. Lewis and Clark spent much time with the Mandans, but by the time they overnighted at this site, they had moved farther north.

In 1782, Ft. McKeen, a small infantry post, was established at this site to support the workers on the railroad system. Soon thereafter, it was enlarged, renamed, and put under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Custer and Mrs. General, as the re-enactors here call her, lived here for three years. Note that G.A.’s rank was now lower than his rank during the Civil War. This was the starting point in 1874of the Black Hills Expedition to confirm the presence of gold in them thar hills. It was also from Fort Abe that Custer and company headed west to combat the Sioux Uprising in 1876. The rest, as you know, is history. But we won’t be able to report on it until next year, because the battlefield is 300 miles west in Montana, and Montana is a 2011 destination! Don’t think we don’t want to head there right now; it’s just that we have unavoidable commitments that don’t allow the time.

On-A-Slant, the Custer Homestead and other garrison features are pictorially recorded below.

State Heritage Center
What a mecca! Located in the Capitol complex, along with the tallest building in ND, the center is guarded by a fifteen foot high statue of Sakakawea and her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

Since we are now so close to the origin of her incorporation into the Corps of Discovery association – a journey that made her the third most famous member of that expedition — let me spend a little more time on her biography.

Question: Is her name spelled Sacagewea or Sacajewea? Out here, the answer is neither. It’s spelled Sakakawea. And it’s pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, not the fourth. It’s Sa-KAK-a-wea, not Sac-a-ga-WE-a. Boy, it sounds prettier!

(If you know all this already, please skip ahead.)

A Shoshone, she was born circa 1788 in northern Idaho. In 1800, she and other young Shoshone women were kidnapped by the Hidatsa during a hunting expedition who lived together with the Mandan north of today’s Bismarck. The following year, a French trapper from Quebec named Toussaint Charbonneau, who was living with the tribes, took both Sakakawea and another Shoshone captive as his brides (yes, plurality was acceptable). When the Corps settled in nearby for the winter of 1804, Charbonneau appealed to the commanders multiple times to take him along as a translator and guide, and they finally relented. Charbonneau and both his wives lived at the Corps’ fort for the winter, where 16 year old Sakakawea gave birth to her first child. Clark dubbed the child Pomp, a name more familiar than Jean Baptiste. She subsequently carried Pomp on her back for the eighteen months between their departure for the Pacific and arrival back at her Hidatsa-Mandan village. During this entire time, she could only communicate through Charbonneau, who knew her native language.

More on the brave girl later. For now, here’s her statue at the Heritage Center.
The Center is a facility worthy of its name. On the very elaborate main floor, it covers millions of years of history. There really two focal points pre-historic and the 16th through 20th centuries.

In 1999, a 16 year old named Tyler Lyson unearthed part of a fossilized dinosaur in southwestern ND’s Hell’s Canyon. As the rest of the story unfolded, the entire creature was excavated by 2007 and is now under reconstruction in the basement of the Center. Named Dakota, this forbear is a duck-billed hadrosaur, estimated to have roamed the area 65 million years earlier. Not only did Tyler discover a skeleton; the site yielded soft tissue, skin and muscles. The opening exhibit in the Center features part of Dakota’s arm and tail, a planogram on the floor defining the related structure, and a model.

But wait, there’s so much more. Numerous life size prehistoric skeletons are on exhibit, some hanging from the ceiling and others with backdrops. The largest, a life-size mastodon, is joined by land and sea creatures.

Beyond the prehistoric era are panoramas, tableaux and artifacts representing virtually every era in the development of – what shall we call it, “Non-Native American” or “Euroamerican” or “Nouveau” influence, or “intervention?” I’m at a loss at the moment. Some part of me wants to call it “interference” or “usurpation.” I can’t say that our visit here has estranged me even more from the way the U.S. went about western expansion. I remember when I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee many years ago, I wept for days. I can’t feel much better about the assassination of a breed; despite the fact that every part of the bison was used by the Native American for survival, the annihilation, didn’t take place until the “cowboy” came. Might as well get this all off my chest. The Native Americans did not look at 1876 as the year of the great defeat of the invaders. They dub it the year that their horses were taken away.

So much for my venting. Please comment if you’d like. I’ll try to be as journalistic as I can as I present these experiences.

Back to the Heritage Center. There were many Native American exhibits, including dwelling units, roles, acquisitions from the land, tools and others. Other displays featured the many nations that contributed new settlers to the region, from Sweden to Germany to Russia to other western European nations. The common denominator: a better life. In many cases, it became true — but not without incredible sweat equity. A section was dedicated to the Metis – Scottish and English expatriates who married Native Americans. The progeny of this merger exists today throughout the region.

Other panels depicted the challenge of farming the land, the expansion of the railroad, and the eventual influx of industry. Each tribe received its due, as did every flora and fauna.

And there were many many exhibits that displayed each stage of the western expansion and challenges and preseverence that made it happen.

Downstairs featured resource centers and offices. But it also held a couple of exhibits. One was the battleship USS Dakota, the first naval ship named for the state. Commissioned in 1908, she had a lackluster life (i.e., no battles) until 1923, when she was decommissioned. In addition to a model, the Center displays an extensive collection of her engraved sterling silver accouterments, from tableware to punch bowl and cups to candelabra.

There was also an exhibit of the Gratitude Train. In 1949, two years after the United States provided France with $40 million in recovery goods through a private drive promoted by Drew Pearson, France showed their appreciation by sending 49 boxcars full of gifts – one for each state.

The Heritage Center took two visits. Winnowing down the available photos has been difficult.

Other In-Town Bismarck Visits
A few miles north of town center was the Double Ditch Village, so named because there were two depressions that enemies had to cross. Nothing is reconstructed, but there are a number of narrative markers around the field, one of which clearly points out the ditches. Walking half way around exposes the Heart River, defining the logic for a reservation there. History tells us that this village was an active trading center that lasted almost 300 years. It was ravaged in 1782 by the first of two smallpox epidemics, at which time the Mandan moved further north. That move will be covered in the next episode.

Heading back toward town, we discovered a park along the Missouri that featured exhibits prepared for the bicentennial of the L&C expedition. One was (yet another) reproduction of the Corps’ keelboat, and not a very good one. Another was a set of huge abstract statues of Lewis, Clark and Sakakawea, used for the state’s L&C bicentennial logo. The most impressive was the Thunderbird Monument, built by the students of the United Tribes Technical College. Five plaques surround it; one describes its construction and the others define the beast’s significance to four different nations.

Two days later we came back to this spot to take an hour long boat ride along the Missouri in a replica riverboat. Pretty and relaxing, but not dramatic!

Finally, we embarked on our third in-town house tour. Anchored by the art-deco Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, this tour covered a dozen houses of very diverse architecture dating from 1902 – 1949.

Menoken Village
Two miles from our campsite, this undeveloped site, first architecturally explored in 1936, was unique in several aspects. First, it was built on a very minor body of water – Apple Creek. Second, it dated much earlier, around 1200 – 1500 AD. The earth mounds were oval; three digs produced two mounds and one surface house. The occupants, Late Plains Woodland People, were hunter/gatherers, not farmers. The palisade included bastions for wider views. Items found in the community were very diverse. Items found in the digs showed remarkable diversity. Examples: copper that probably came from eastern Minnesota, sea life that came from the Atlantic or the Gulf, obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass from Yellowstone or farther, and flint which occurred no closer than 100 miles north.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *