Monthly Archives: March 2013

Memories and Material Culture for the State Historical Society of North Dakota

This is a historic pony truss railroad bridge that spans the Missouri River between Bismarck and Mandan. It is a cultural icon, and has an infinite amount of individual stories attached to it. If someone were to destroy or replace this bridge in the name of "progress," it would seriously hurt and damage the living local history and culture of Bismarck and Mandan.

This is a historic pony truss railroad bridge that spans the Missouri River between Bismarck and Mandan. It is a cultural icon, and has an infinite amount of individual stories attached to it.

Think of this for a second: one of the primary interests and concerns of historians is that memories are fixed to the stuff we use and live with. Memories are also fixed to the stuff that our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents used (landscapes, homesteads, historic buildings and structures included).

I recently received an e-mail forward from archaeological comrade and colleague Amy Bleier, Research Archaeologist with the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND). As the lot of us within range of Bismarck already know, the SHSND is experiencing a much-needed expansion. This also means that Len Thorson, the Registrar with the SHSND, is looking for material culture, or 3-dimensional objects, or what we call “stuff.”

Stuff is much more meaningful if it has those stories and memories fixed and secured to it. And it allows historians to do what historians are trained to do: track change through time.

Thorson sent out the following e-mail the other day. It is cut and pasted below. In Thorson’s words:

The Museum Collections Committee is looking for contemporary items from North Dakota businesses and organizations that you have purchased and/or used… or someone you know who would be willing to donate objects to the SHSND. The items should be relatively small (for space considerations). A history of the object(s), along with appropriate documents and photographs, would add much historical significance to the objects.

Examples include product packages from Cass Clay, Hugo’s Family Marketplace, Dakota Pasta, Noodles by Leonardo, Red River Commodities/SunGold Foods (SunButter), HIT Inc. products, or many other products listed on the Pride of Dakota webpage:

Other items (used in ND) we are seeking include: beekeeping equipment and supplies; Highway 10 memorabilia; items showing ND school consolidation; solar power devices; objects from the Bank of North Dakota; contemporary powwow related items; contemporary immigration related items; and modern agricultural items such as GPS equipment, and air seeder/drill parts, etc.

If this is something you wish to participate in, please let us know, but PLEASE don’t bring objects in for us to view. Simply reply to this e-mail, or even better, provide the information requested below. The information requested by us may also be sent online via the form at

Consider this. It is important. If you have some sweet modern artifacts — in the business, we often call this contemporary or modern archaeology and history — with a memory attached to it, you might contact Registrar Thorson, or anyone from the SHSND Museum Collections Committee. It is by and for North Dakotans.

Gerald Friesen, “The Canadian Prairies: A History” (1984)

Published in 1984, the synthetic work that is Gerald Friesen’s The Canadian Prairies incorporated hundreds of books, articles, and government reports to give readers a glimpse of the long historical processes — Fernand Braudel’s longue durée — that unfolded within the western interior of Canada from 1600 up through the middle of the twentieth century. The book begins with a general introduction of the geology that shaped the region’s physiography, an area that is organized into three parts. In the east is the prairie, and west of that is a step (or steppe) up to the parkland, and then higher yet the forest. The prairie is the area of the Red River Valley and Lake Agassiz basin, and as Friesen says it rolls “seemingly without end north and west.” The parkland region is composed of gentle rolling hills and valleys, with prairie potholes and fertile soil. Further west of the parkland is the northern extension of the Rocky Mountains and the Boreal Forest. This area has outcroppings of rocks, frigid lakes, and a portion of forest that is part of a broader network of spruce and pine that extends from Newfoundland to Alaska. (Friesen, 1984: 3-9)

"Fur trade posts of the west." (Friesen, 1984: 96)

“Fur trade posts of the west.” (Friesen, 1984: 96)

Throughout the narrative, culture constantly interacts with the natural world. The year of 1840, however, provides an industrial point of demarcation within this synthesis, and within the history of the Canadian interior. Prior to this, human inhabitants relied much on the broad and gradual swings of nature. Rivers served as transportation routes, and river courses often influenced the direction of trade flows and Native American diplomacy. Rivers, lakes and potholes also provided vegetation with a permanent water source, and where there was vegetation, bison would certainly gather. The global industrial revolution, though, eventually made available such things as steamboats, firearms, agricultural implements, and railroads, and by the latter half of the nineteenth century, the interior of the Canadian west had been altered as never before. The Canadian government favored settlers, and Native American nomads became “wards of the state — put bluntly, they would be treated as children.” (Friesen, 1984: 129)

Two of the passages in Friesen’s work that explain this cultural change come in the form of primary and secondary sources. As a primary source, Friesen quotes Isaac Cowie and his wagon-train experience when maneuvering through a herd of bison. Cowie said in,

…the midst of the herd, which opened in front and closed behind the train of carts like water round a ship… the earth trembled day and night… as they moved… over the inclinations of the plains. Every drop of water on our way was foul and yellow with their wallowing and excretions. (Friesen, 1984: 8)

First Nations and Native American boundaries circa 1820. (Friesen, 1984: 94)

First Nations and Native American boundaries circa 1820. (Friesen, 1984: 94)

Further in Friesen’s work is his own anthropological understanding of the furious alteration of old ways that were increasingly giving way to global industrialization. Commenting on the Cree, and placing the reader in that perspective, Friesen said,

A typical Cree youth might have been hunting buffalo and raiding for horses in the 1860s just as his grandfather had done sixty years before; in the 1870s, he might have succumbed to the whiskey trade or been struck by an epidemic; almost certainly he would have been removed to a reserve and perhaps even taught the rudiments of agriculture. In the 1880s, some of his children might have been attending school, and he, having faced starvation for three or four years in succession, might have participated in the violence associated with the 1885 uprising… the buffalo had disappeared, trains and fences and towns now dominated the plains, and the old ways had disappeared beyond recovery. (Friesen, 1984: 130)

Further thoughts on this induce a reader to consider how global population movements before and after the 19th century industrial revolution shifted and altered indigenous customs and habits with a rapidity never before seen or experienced. Localized accounts of this come in the form of Fort Whoop Up, and the expansive network of railroads that eventually eclipsed the smaller fur trade forts. Friesen is good at explaining this in a way that leads readers to envision themselves as individual Native Americans looking at endless waves of non-Natives and invaders colonizing their traditional lands. This, indeed, is the epitome of good history: it is not elevating one side at the expense of another. Rather, the good and excellent historian allows the reader to understand all sides, and how conflict and disorder came about and what resulted from it.

By the first half of the twentieth century, immigrants had flooded into the Canadian interior, and the result was cosmopolitan chaos. Again, Friesen’s prose shines as he places the reader into Winnipeg circa 1900.

To descend from the train at the CPR [railroad] station in Winnipeg was to enter an international bazaar: the noise of thousands of voices and a dozen tongues circled the high marble pillars and drifted out into the street, there to mingle with the sounds of construction, delivery wagons, perambulatory vendors, and labour recruiters. The crowds were equally dense on Main Street, just a block away, where shops displayed their wares in a fashion more European than British North American: fruits and vegetables, books and newspapers, coats and jackets stood on sidewalk tables and racks, even on the outer walls of buildings when weather permitted. (Friesen, 1984: 243)

This continues, as Friesen remarks on the smells of fresh earth and milled lumber from the Boreal Forest resulting from localized construction projects in downtown Winnipeg. He tempers the progress of nostalgic development with smells of “beer and whisky and sweat and horse manure” so that a reader does not get lonesome for a manicured past that never was.

Friesen’s synthetic narrative is a likely starting point for that long duration of the history of the Canadian west. In his introductory and concluding remarks, he chose to celebrate rather than chide the “superficial friendliness that makes daily contact between people of very different backgrounds not only possible but likely.” (Friesen, 1984: xiii) In 1984, Friesen looked kindly on the culture of the Canadian plains and prairie, and this is a marked difference from how Wallace Stegner portrayed it in 1955. For Friesen, curling represented “a most democratic sport,” while all Stegner could see in curling was the absence of tennis. In a large way, Friesen checked any kind of disappointment or snobbery at the door. This is not to throw Stegner under a bus or bison stampede. Rather, it demonstrates that throughout time, perceptions change, both for individuals who are direct participants in the past, and individuals who study and interpret their behavior. This, in a large way, is just as much a reflection of the culture the historian is studying as it is as the culture that the historian comes from.

Glenda Riley, “The Female Frontier” (1988)

Glenda Riley opened her 1988 work, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains, by lobbing a volley towards past Great Plains historians. Riley justified this volley by drawing from questionnaires she circulated to academics, students and lay people in the 1980s. (Riley, 1988: 14) She said that while academics were largely skeptical of the traditional myth and image of women on the Great Plains, it was students and laypeople that continued to accept these traditional images and myths. Within the first three paragraphs of chapter 1, she said Frederick Jackson Turner, George F. Parker, Everett Dick, Walter P. Webb, et al., were largely responsible for portraying frontierswomen as “one-dimensional stereotypes.” Women were often victimized as passive agents who were “gaunt and sad-faced… sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following” their “lord where he might lead” her. Or women were portrayed as “leathery, stooped, and lifeless figures who either begged to return home or persevered until they were broken entirely.” Riley uncovered a body of knowledge that undermined the “puerile stereotypes” ascribed to women on the Great Plains and in the American West, and she challenged a traditional way of looking at the past. (Riley, 1988: 1-2)

The historiographic crux of Riley’s argument elevated culture as the primary determinant of understanding how frontierswomen carried on their lives, and through this she discounted the environmental determinism Walter Webb advanced in his 1931 work, The Great Plains. (Riley, 1988: 12) Riley organized her work into two categories, and this included 1) women on the Prairie; and 2) women on the Plains. Women did much more than follow their lords. They managed households, preserved familial, religious and ethnic traditions by acting as local historians, Bible recorders, and genealogists, they shaped their domestic and local economy, and they participated in community and civics.

In this, Riley aptly accounted for the cultural roles of women, and also men. She said the socio-economic system of the nineteenth century required men to be “the primary breadwinners,” and this meant that women were expected to marry. (Riley, 1988: 15) If women wanted something else, they often would not marry, or they “forswore marriage entirely.” Instead, they could enroll in religious institutions that had missions dedicated to improving healthcare and education for the needy, unfortunate, or downtrodden. For example, in 1853 the Sisters of St. Joseph’s built the first hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1872, the Sisters of Charity (or the Grey Nuns) came to Dakota Territory. Eight years later the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary arrived. Once in the territory and on the Great Plains, they set out with the progressive mission of improving educational and healthcare facilities for otherwise marginalized groups. (Riley, 1988: 19)

Several thoughts came to mind while reading Riley’s work. The first was how breaking into established cultural orders and institutions can take on at least two forms. One way to change tradition and reframe the conversation is to go through back channels within the established institution, and try to reform it from within. Another way is to publicly denounce the institution. In the sense that Riley published her work in an academic press, it appears that she utilized both courses. She networked and made contacts within academic publishing houses, and they eventually printed her scholarship. This in turn brought about change in the historiography of the Great Plains and the American West, and this is at least one broad roadmap for any historian to incorporate and follow.

Another thought was that in 2013, Riley’s 1988 volley toward the traditional historians of the Great Plains and American West might at first read a bit bombastic. It does not read bombastic in the sense that Riley was out of line. Not in the least. Rather, it is a reflection of pathfinders and scholar-activists who, in some ways, appropriated and used the type of academic rhetoric that was used to marginalize them in the first place. In other cases, Riley’s rhetorical flourishes ensured that women — her included — would not be ignored. For Riley to call foundational historians of the American West “puerile,” and in an academic press, almost guaranteed that historians would have to bring their attention to bear on her and her scholarship. In this sense, Riley could also have a different sub-title to her book that read something along the lines of, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of our Grandmothers and Great Grandmothers on the Prairie and Plains. This alternative and fictional sub-title might speak a bit more to 21st-century heritage and Public Historians rather than to 1980s feminist history.

A final remark about the continued shift in women’s scholarship looks to how Euro- and Anglo-American women view themselves, and how Margaret D. Jacobs treats this group in her 2011 work, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. But that is easily a topic and point of consideration for another review.