Plan Your Visit | About Our Foundation | Educational Info | The Dakota Institute | Membership | Blog | Shop
Request More Info | Donations | Centennial Farms | Discover Lewis & Clark
Rediscovering Fort Mandan: Seaman Overlook

Statue of Seaman at the Seaman Overlook near Fort Mandan.
By Sue Johnsrud, Development Director

Last week, during an all too brief respite from winter weather, I ventured from my office on a mission to find out how Fort Mandan, the Headwaters Visitor Center, and the Seaman Overlook actually changed since last I visited. I had forgotten the beauty of the location–the trees, the river, the landscape—and spring awakening is just beginning!

Meriwether Lewis purchased Seaman, a Newfoundland dog, for $20 in 1803. The canine companion became the mascot for the Corp of Discovery in 1804. Seaman had a large body and a courageous nature, yet was known to be devoted to his owner and quick to defend and safeguard the men of the expedition.

How fitting to have a statue of Seaman, and all his countenance suggests, welcome visitors to Fort Mandan. The warmth conveyed by the kindly statue epitomizes two key elements of the Lewis and Clark expedition--Peace and Friendship. These two key attitudes were vital to the survival of the men of the Corps of Discovery and the success of their mission. Thomas Jefferson showed much wisdom in laying a foundation of peace and friendship for the Corps before moving on to other things such as trust, sharing of resources and information.

In his instructions to the leader of the Corps of Discovery Jefferson advised Lewis, “it will now be proper you should inform those through whose country you will pass . . . that henceforth we become their fathers and friends.” The Jefferson Peace Medal was distributed by Lewis and Clark to their hosts on the trail, and is cast with the words “Peace and Friendship’”. Though this camaraderie of cultures did not survive the aggressive expansion of the whites, the virtues themselves continue on to this day. We see them expressed in those of us who esteem them as valuable commodities--arguably as valuable as land rights.

The peace and friendship shared between the Corps, Seaman, and the native people is valued and lives on today through the work of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation and all who support our work. The preservation and celebration of not only art, artifacts and writings but virtues and values that shape our people is important to all of us as North Dakotans. If you would like to be a part of our work of preserving history, art and values for future generations call me at 1-877-462-8535 and I will tell you how!

Elders Can Teach

Oscar H. Will exhibit
Oscar H. Will exhibit at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.
By Jeff Carlson, Interpretive Program Coordinator

North Dakota’s pioneer era taught many lessons. Those who lived through it learned about hardship, perseverance, family, faith and, in not a few cases, failure. While all of these lessons had value, perhaps equally important were those related to adaptability.

Many early white settlers of North Dakota came here to farm. Most brought along an understanding of agriculture gleaned from working the soil “back home.” This knowledge often led to a belief that what worked there must work here, too.

As North Dakota’s residents know, however, this is a place with unique realities and its own set of challenges. In such a place, the most successful adapt by learning from others who, through their life experience, know of which they speak. Among the pioneers coming to North Dakota more than 100 years ago was Oscar Will – a man who knew this was true.

Some of you may be familiar with Will. He once founded a Bismarck company that furnished farmers near and far with seed that had tested well in North Dakota’s difficult conditions. He may have even sent seed catalogs to your parents or grandparents. The seeds that filled those catalogs often came from American Indians like the Mandans and Hidatsas who had, over time, learned to thrive here as farmers.

Motivated by the special challenges of his adopted home (and the desire to be a successful businessman), Will actively sought to learn from these people who knew North Dakota farming best. He demonstrated respect for others’ knowledge and gave credit to those who provided it. His company’s catalogs were marked, sometimes from cover to cover, by references to the Native origins of his seed. Will built a successful business on the knowledge of those who came before.

Looking back, it might be said that this pioneer seedsman had a willingness to listen to his elders. It might also be said that he found elders willing to let him listen. With new transplants arriving in North Dakota daily, it seems the timeless wisdom of learning from those who came before deserves renewed attention. Perhaps you are a new North Dakotan with an opportunity to listen, or a long-time North Dakotan with an opportunity to share what you know. In either case, seize the opportunity! The state – and those who call it home – will be better for it.

Quite the Character

Jean Baptiste
Image from "Starting the Fire" by Michael Haynes
By Courtney Doll, Interpreter

Explorer John C. Fremont happened upon a small band of fur trappers and hunters camping on a Platte River sand bar in 1842. The river was too low for the trappers’ fur-laden boats to float, but the men were in good spirits nonetheless. They treated Fremont to mint julep, boiled buffalo tongue, and “coffee with the luxury of sugar” before he continued on his way. Who was the leader of such a hospitable camp? It was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, famed child of Sacagawea, and a man of contradictions.

A fur trader and trapper, wilderness guide, hunter, magistrate and innkeeper, Jean Baptiste left no written record of his own. These basic details of his life have been mined from the written records of men, like Fremont, who encountered Jean Baptiste and mentioned him by name. I started researching Jean Baptiste about a year ago, and while it is obvious from various letters and journal entries that he was capable of making a good impression, it is also clear he had his fair share of rough edges.

The same man so cheerfully stuck on the Platte River in 1842 had once stabbed a man in the back. Jean Baptiste was at a fur trapper’s rendezvous in 1834 when a rash of vandalism broke out in the camp. According to witness William Marshall Anderson, Jean Baptiste accused a man he had earlier noticed lurking around of committing the vandalism. When the man threated him, Jean Baptiste stabbed him with his butcher knife “up to the hilt in…his shoulder.”

I think Jean Baptiste was, as the saying goes, quite the character. But who was he, really? Maybe Col. Philip St. George Cooke, commanding officer of the Mormon Battalion Jean Baptiste led through the desert southwest, summed him up the best when he said, “humanity in confusion…near gentleman, near animal but above all capable, loyal and a most valued asset.”

9 Names in North Dakota No PR Department Would Approve

Would "river bottom" by any other name still sound as sweet?
By Robert Hanna, Interpreter

North Dakota. Most of us who live here love it, but in kind of an ugly stepchild sort of way.

I think part of the problem is the names we have for some of the state’s most important elements, whether that be the landscape, our animals, or our plants.


Great Plains (boring)
Badlands (sounds bad)
Big Muddy River (yuck)
Devil’s Lake (lake from hell?)
sloughs/pot holes (gross)
river bottoms (like river butts?)
chokecherries (Do they kill you?)
cottonwoods (fuzzy wood?)
milkweed (presumably a weed)

I could have listed more. Who’s responsible for these names? Whoever it was, I think it’s safe to say they weren’t overcome with affection for the place. According to scientists, humans generally prefer wooded landscapes with a stream and a path winding off into the trees. Most of ND doesn’t look like that, but it’s still beautiful in its own way and it deserves a better reputation. Let’s consider what a good PR department might want you to think about when you hear those names.

Great Plains — You might think of them as the single largest solid object you can look at outside of the seas and sky. Their overwhelming dimensions invite worlds of contemplation and probably shape the character of those of us who live here.

Badlands — The name is actually short for their French Canadian name, “Bad lands to Travel Through.” They’re lovely for other purposes, though, such as tourism. In the late 1800s the Northern Pacific Railroad tried but failed to re-brand them as “Pyramid Park.”

Big Muddy River — The Missouri was silty, not muddy, and that means the water was full of fresh soil and nutrients that made the riverbanks into world-class farmland.

Devil’s Lake — A mistranslation of its real name, “Minnewaukan.” Meaning “Spirit Lake,” it refers to the spirit-like whisps of vapor that can be seen rising from the water on misty mornings.

slough/pot holes — Folks in most states would call these wetlands and probably surround them with beautiful nature centers. Ours are part of North America’s most important migratory bird flyway and the reason we have more nature preserves than any other state.

river bottoms — In other places these are called gallery forests, referring to the archways of trees that line the riverbanks. Over many generations we’ve gradually stopped calling our river bottoms “forests” because we’ve taken such bad care of them they no longer look like they’re supposed to.

chokecherries — they may be bitter, but as anyone who enjoys hops or strong coffee will tell you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

cottonwoods — While it’s true that they’re not world-class building material, cottonwood trees are the monarchs of North Dakota’s riparian ecosystems. Some are known be up to three hundred years old, such as the ones at Smith Grove on the Missouri.

milkweed — One of many native plants falsely labeled “weeds.” It’s a vital food source for monarch butterflies.

I’m not necessarily arguing that we need to change these names, but I do think we need to be conscious of how they’ve influenced us. Do our special places get less attention because they don’t have compelling names like “Great Smoky Mountains” or “Mojave Desert?” Do they make us less affectionate towards the land we love? Do they make us less likely to promote and preserve it?

"Say what?"

Schu de ga che
By Courtney Doll, Interpreter

Winter at the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is research season, at least for interpreters like me. When people visit the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan during the summer they come up with a lot of questions. We can answer many of those questions right away. For example:

Visitor: “Did they really have a cannon like that one?”
Interpreter: “Yes, it was mounted on the front of the keelboat.”

There are other questions though that we really cannot answer right away.

Visitor: “Who is the Indian with the facial hair in that picture?”
Interpreter: “Umm… I do not know, but I will try to find out.”

A visitor asked me that question a few months ago and I really could not answer. It was still very busy at the Center and Fort then and I just did not have the time to do more than a quick internet search. Now that there are fewer visitors I have actually had the time to do the proper research and find an answer. The ‘Indian with the facial hair in that picture’ is a Ponca chief named Schu de ga che, which means “He Who Smokes” according to Prince Maximilian of Wied. Prince Maximilian met Schu de ga che on May 11, 1833 near White Bear Bluffs in present day Yankton County, South Dakota. Even though it is not much information and the visitor who asked that question is gone I now have an answer. Someone else could ask that same question again, and now I have the information filed away, just in case.

That is not the only type of research I am doing this time of year though. I am working on three new interpretive programs to offer at Fort Mandan and all of them require some research. One will be about hunting on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, another about medical treatments at Fort Mandan, and the last about fire starting methods. Which of them sounds most interesting to you? If you stop by the Interpretive Center let me know what you think. You never know, you could find me on a bench in one of the galleries pouring over a book for one of those programs!

Winter's Coming: 9 Tips for Keeping Cozy From the First North Dakotans

Winter Village
Winter Village of the Minatarres
By Robert Hanna, Interpreter

After 1,000 years in North Dakota, the Mandans and Hidatsas have learned a thing or two about cold. Some ideas from their historic traditions that you and your family might enjoy . . .

1. The ultimate warming drink isn’t tea or cocoa. It’s a hot cup of broth. What makes chicken noodle soup so good? The broth! The first North Dakotans enjoyed bison broth to warm up on the coldest days. The easiest modern equivalent would be prepared beef broth. Make sure it’s the unsalted kind (try the health food section). A typical one-cup serving has just 10 calories, 120 mg of sodium, and no fat. Just be prepared for obscene levels of savor and richness.

2. How about the best bowl of porridge you’ve ever tried? Called Four Vegetables Mixed, the Hidatsas made it out of their four main crops: corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. The corn and sunflowers were freshly roasted, resulting in a hot cereal with a surprisingly rich variety of flavors. We make it all the time here for visitors. Just email us for cooking instructions.

3. Beat your cabin fever with a trip to the river. River bottomlands are often sheltered by trees and ranges of hills, especially along the Missouri. That’s why the Mandans and Hidatsas actually moved down there into special winter earthlodges. We might not have that luxury now, but there’s still hardly a better place for a pleasant winter walk. In fact some of us have noticed near perfect calm by the river while snowstorms raged nearby. We have lots of parks and preserves by the Missouri—treat yourself to a walk when you’re starting to go stir crazy.

4. In that spirit, play games that use snow. Stay active! Winter is the perfect time for hockey, skiing, snowshoeing, skating, sledding. Mandans and Hidatsas enjoyed many of these, plus a near-forgotten kids’ game called ice gliders. Check out a picture here.

5. Winter is storytelling time.
This is one tradition that, in a way, hasn’t really changed. Consider all the new TV seasons that start in the fall. (Fun fact—Hidatsas and Mandans ate popcorn too. The more things change . . . ) Back in the day young people went to their grandparents, uncles, or aunts with a gift like a knife or a blanket and asked to hear a story. The elders might tell old family stories, recount hunting adventures, or tell morality tales about Old Man Coyote. Why not get the kids together with a gift for grandma or grandpa and ask to hear a story this winter?

6. Cut energy bills with an earthlodge. This is the least practical suggestion, but it’s too good to leave out. The Mandans, Hidatsas, and their neighbors developed the earthlodge design over centuries until it could master the Great Plains’ unique conditions. An interpreter friend of ours built a fire in one one winter and easily warmed it to 65 degrees—and it was -20 outside! The long entry tunnel, adjustable door, windscreen, and smoke hole cover make a system to harness the powerful Plains winds into a draft for the fire pit. We’d love to see somebody figure out a version of an earthlodge for modern living.

7. When you’re dressing for cold, protect your extremities. Wear a fur hat and fur-lined boots. ‘Nuff said.

8. Name your winter. As winter came to a close, the family would gather together and decide what the single most defining event of that winter was. That event would become the “name” of the winter. The father in the household would paint a pictograph to symbolize that event on a bison robe or piece of cloth, and over the years the accumulating symbols became a document of that family’s experiences. Called a winter count, some of these have been passed down over many generations and date back to the 1700s. Why not start your own?

9. Listen for the water birds. Spring meant power returning to the land—the power that greens the grasses, opens leaves and flowers, and raises the crops. It’s as if everything is coming back to life. The water birds—ducks, swans, and especially geese—were said to carry that power back here every year from a farming goddess who lived in the south. So when you hear the air fill with honking noises, give thanks to whatever powers you believe in for returning the power to the land.

Is This Your Moment?

Meriweather Lewis, a man shaped by his boyhood experiences.
By Jeff Carlson, Interpreter

“We just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening.” – Moonlight Graham, Field of Dreams

When did Lewis and Clark first arrive in North Dakota? The answer to that question is simple: 1804. Many of history’s less-compelling questions have easy answers.

Often, the most fascinating parts of a story are those that are more difficult to pin down. For example, here’s another question: Where did Lewis and Clark’s Expedition begin? St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Monticello can all make a claim. All, in their own way, are correct. Less familiar, but also correct, are places called Broad River and Locust Hill.

These were the boyhood homes of Meriwether Lewis. In those days, children grew up young. By the time he was about thirteen, Meriwether had lived through his father’s death, moved with his family to a Broad River settlement in the Georgia woods, and returned to Virginia to oversee the Locust Hill estate he had inherited from his father.

These places planted seeds in Lewis that would later blossom and catch the attention of a President – but he could not have known it then. Who could have seen that the backwoods adventures of an eight year old would help produce a Montana grizzly hunter? Who would have imagined that a boy watching his mother make medicines from Virginia plants would one day become the Corps of Discovery’s doctor? Who might have guessed that a young boy who valued education was beginning to learn the things that would eventually allow him to record his greatest triumph?

Maybe no one. Yet, at this young age, Lewis was experiencing things that would uniquely qualify him for what was to come. The seeds planted in a young boy would bear fruit here in North Dakota and all across the continent. That is part of the story told at Fort Mandan. It is one with a timeless lesson: In Lewis’s time, as in ours, the most important moments in life are there, waiting to be recognized. Sometimes when we least expect them.

The topics of this and all the rest of the blogs are well chosen, and very well written. They neither talk down -- or up -- to the reader and potential visitor.

Congratulations to each of the writers..

I agree - very informative and well written. Keep writing, even if people don't comment - there's an invisible audience reading, and more importantly, learning!

Exploring from Afar

3rd graders at The Hockaday School in Dallas received part two of their remote Fort Mandan experience, as Jeff Carlson with their teachers gave them a tour of the fort via Skype.
By Jeff Carlson, Interpreter

Over the last couple of days, I had the unique opportunity to conduct a virtual field trip with third grade students from The Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas. As part of their Lewis and Clark unit, Lower School teachers Karen Roberts and Mary Ellen Wilensky came to North Dakota to visit Fort Mandan, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and the Knife River Indian Villages.

Each of the two days they were here, I was able to communicate via Skype for about two hours with their students. The first day allowed three third grade groups a chance to be introduced to the Mandans. As these inquisitive students learned through the “Great Missouri General Store” program, Lewis and Clark’s neighbors during the 1804-5 winter had been important for years as major players in North America’s trading networks. They discovered that convenience, consistency, and an interesting historical coincidence were central to the Mandans’ importance.

The second day was highlighted by a visit to Fort Mandan. From the comfort of their own classrooms, students were able to see inside the Corps of Discovery’s cabins, and get a feel for what the cold and snowy North Dakota winter might have been like for these men from places like Virginia and Kentucky. They had lots of great questions on this day, as well – a couple of those were so good I will be answering them in the future on a blog the teachers created for the trip. This blog has been a terrific interactive tool for us already, and it will continue to be as these students further investigate the Corps of Discovery’s westward journey. If you’d like to see what our far away visitors took away from their virtual visit, you can check out the blog for yourself by clicking here.

This experience made for a great couple of days! And the model it provided will continue to bring us more great days in the future. We look forward to using similar technologies to share our unique sense of place with eager learners – like the students from Hockaday – from across the country and around the world. I can’t wait for the next chance to do just that!

North Dakota's Love of Sports Is Much Older than North Dakota

Our reproduction game sets for lacrosse, ice gliders, field hockey, chunkey, doubleball, and hoop-and-pole.
By Robert Hanna, Interpreter

Sunday’s Super Bowl was unusual. We were treated to a stunning 108-yard return, a 34-minute electrical outage, and a dramatic turnaround for the 49ers, transforming what looked like a shoo-in for the Ravens into a real nail biter.

Less unusual were the annual complaints by social critics that America is just too obsessed with sports.

I don’t know if they’re right, but the obsession is certainly nothing new. If you could go back in time a few hundred years, you’d find American Indians playing sports on a scale we can hardly imagine today. And just like us, their enthusiasm often verged on mania.

Take Native lacrosse. In the Midwest, a game could have hundreds of players, the goals were up to two miles apart, and full contact was allowed. In fact everything was allowed except touching the ball with your hands.

Essentially two massive teams battled their way across an extensive landscape, struggling to reach the other’s goal and score a point. Only two points were needed to win the game, and yet a game could stretch on for days or until one of the teams simply surrendered in exhaustion.

Another popular game was chunkey. Mandan and Hidatsa men were said to spend hours a day playing or watching others play, sometimes betting everything they owned on the outcomes (not as serious as it would be in our culture, but that’s another blog entry). Chunkey involved getting two moving objects to align when they stop: a rolling stone ring, and certain points on a lance you carefully threw behind it.

Much effort went into making a good chunkey course. Typical ones in present-day North Dakota seem to have been about 50 yards long. Chunkey players made them from packed earth or wooden planking and outfitted some with bumpers to keep the ring and lances from sliding out of bounds. In at least one case they planted shrubbery all around so the wind couldn’t interfere with the precise movements of the game pieces.

There were many other games as well. Doubleball, field hockey, a version of hacky sack, ice gliders, hoop-and-pole, trick horseback riding, horseracing, foot racing, and various archery competitions have all been recorded among North Dakota tribes.

You might think all this information is just for fun, but I think there’s a deeper meaning. Contrary to the impression we usually get of Native cultures centuries ago, life wasn’t all hardship and survival. Particularly before European diseases made their way here, tribes on the Upper Great Plains thrived off of farming and hunting. So successful were they that they had time for a sports obsession much like our own.

If you and your family would like to try some of these games for yourself (with a few rule changes for safety!), they’ll be part of a new program we’re offering called “Native Sports: Play the Upper Great Plains’ First Games.” It starts this spring. Give us a call and we’ll hook you up!

Tourists are Pilgrims

By Robert Hanna, Interpreter

"When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root . . .
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage . . .
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands." -Geoffrey Chaucer

The island of Shikoku in Japan is circled by an ancient path that connects eighty-eight temples. For over a thousand years, pilgrims have walked this path and visited each one. Each is unique, and many are set in beautiful gardens. The path may wind by cities and highways, but for the dedicated pilgrim, arriving at the temple brings a sense of serenity as she prepares for reflection and prayer.

People all over the world seek meaningful places. Chaucer’s pilgrims went to Canterbury to remember the death of St. Thomas Becket. Lewis and Clark mention several Mandans travelling to Medicine Rock to pray and seek omens. Jefferson buffs descend upon Monticello to imagine their favorite President drinking Bordeaux and philosophizing with his Enlightenment buddies. I recently went to Pipestone Quarry to see where thousands of pipe bowls I’ve seen all over the world come from. Maybe you’ve journeyed back to your childhood home to see if you can relive some of your earliest memories.

As you travel to such a place, if it has meaning for you personally, you’re filled with a sense of mounting expectation. When you arrive, the feeling is momentous. Those feelings are a universal part of the human experience.

In a way you could say you are a pilgrim.

A pilgrim is an exceptional person. She is focused on one of the best aspects of her nature—growth and renewal. The fact that she was able to make the journey means her everyday needs are fulfilled and not of primary concern. She is free to indulge in wonder and curiosity. She’s out to make herself a stronger person.

The word “tourist” has a very negative connotation. As an interpreter, I’ve seen many pilgrims casually dismissed as tourists. For many Lewis and Clark fans, the Lewis and Clark Trail is really not that different from the Shikoku Route. Arriving at Fort Mandan or Traveller’s Rest offers a similar momentous feeling. Such visitors are dedicated seekers. They seek inspiration from the exceptional heroes who lived here, want to learn from their mistakes, or want to learn what made them so successful. Let us honor these pilgrims. They are seekers of knowledge and, through knowledge, wisdom. They’re making themselves stronger persons, and with that strength they will be a blessing in the lives of those around them.

The Scary Tour Guide

By Robert Hanna, Interpreter

“Guides...know their story by heart — the history of every statue, painting, cathedral or other wonder they show you. They know it and tell it as a parrot would — and if you interrupt, and throw them off the track, they have to go back and begin over again.” - Mark Twain

That was in 1867. Twain was a tourist travelling to Europe on a wooden steam boat. One hundred forty five years later, a jet will take you to Europe at over 500 mph, but the tour guides are pretty much the same.

Guides are scary. If you ask them a question, they’ll bore you for twenty minutes. They don’t seem to notice as you look for an opportunity to escape. If you talk to them, you won’t get to finish a sentence, but they’ll unload paragraphs of information on you.

Not all of them are like this, but far too many are. As a guide myself, the most difficult part of my job is overcoming visitors’ fear of the scary tour guide. They’re afraid to ask me a question. They’re afraid to come on a tour or enjoy an interpretive program.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A master guide gives visitors a feeling of excitement about the sights they’ve seen. Fort Mandan is dedicated to offering this kind of historical interpretation. So they sent Jeff and I to the headquarters of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) in Fort Collins, CO, for a week of training with Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman, two of the stars of our profession. We’ll be spreading what we learned to our fellow guides here at Fort Mandan.

Today the sight of an approaching tour guide is a bad omen. With the work that NAI, interpretive trainers, and visionary guides all over the world are doing, I hope that by the end of my career it will have shifted to a good one.

The Power of "I Don't Know"

By Jeffery A. Carlson, Interpretive Program Coodinator

“I don’t know.” When I first began as an interpreter, these were quite possibly the last three words I ever wanted to say. In my view, visitors traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles and paying for an interpretive experience expected an expert. Because they expected it, so did I. Early on, I was motivated to anticipate questions that might arise. Being prepared for them, I thought, would help me avoid having to say those three words I dreaded – and the discomfort that was sure to follow them.

Today, having gained more experience and a better perspective, I realize that those moments where I am forced to say “I don’t know” provide an opportunity for growth, rather than an instance of failure. Certainly, I continue to try and anticipate visitors’ questions (especially as I am creating new programs) to prepare myself as well as possible. I have come to learn, though, that those moments when I don’t know an answer are bound to occur…perhaps even more when I am at my best because it is in those moments when the visitors I am working with are engaged and thinking critically, thoroughly, and maybe even in news ways about my topic.

These are moments of potential for the group generally and for me especially. I no longer dread them because they are what provide me with concrete ideas to pursue. Having to say “I don’t know” challenges me to explore topics in more depth, think about them differently, or simply ask myself why I didn’t think of them before. In doing any and all of these things, I prepare myself to be more fully exactly what an interpreter should be: a resource for people.

Sense of Place on the Upper Missouri

By Robert Hanna, Interpreter

What does the landscape of the Upper Missouri mean to you? Is it a broad and boring plain? Is it what your family has called home for generations? Maybe both?

When the ancient Romans talked about the “spirit of a place,” they meant the actual nymph or demigod that supposedly lived in a given grove, town, or spring. Today when we talk about the “spirit of a place,” we mean a certain feeling a place gives us. It might be a feeling we cannot put into words, even though we may be able to stand there silently and understand it together. There is a world-wide movement among guides at natural and historic sites to better understand and communicate sense of place to visitors. Every national park, monument, and historic site is absolutely unique. That is why such places have the power to draw in visitors from continents away. But if guides and visitors don’t take the time to listen, reflect upon, and understand the spirit of a place, they can easily miss it entirely.

As a new guide at Fort Mandan, I’m working to develop a strong sense of place for the land on which it stands. To Lewis and Clark and most of the men of their expedition, it was an exotic place where they encountered things they had never seen before, like earth lodges, pronghorns, and grizzly bears. Their neighbors the Mandan and Hidatsa saw it much more like we do now—as home. They had already lived here for hundreds of years, and their connection to the land had a certain fullness that is inspiring to me. They knew that applying purple coneflower sap could soothe the pain of an insect bite. They had stories about the spirits and creatures that lived here, like Old Man Coyote, who was always wandering along the riverbanks, looking for trouble, or the Swallower, a headless monster who lived in a wooded draw along the river bottom.

It’s that kind of a deep connection that inspires me the most and that I’d like to pass on to our visitors. I’m working right now on a program in which visitors and I will walk along the fort grounds and compare what the Upper Missouri was like then and now. As a fellow inhabitant of the Upper Missouri, chances are you also have an excellent sense of place here. So what does this land mean to you?

Well written, Robert!