North Dakota, for many people, has the reputation for being a cold place to live during the winter. While it is that, the state has a rich heritage that too often is overlooked. One way to correct the mistaken perception of the state is to visit the North Dakota Heritage Center at 612 Boulevard Avenue, Bismarck, North Dakota. The Center is operated by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. A variety of permanent and temporary exhibits will introduce you to the “story of human life on the northern plains,” as the Heritage Center website puts it.
My wife and I visited the Center on a trip to the west a few years ago. Part of our trip would include stops at Lewis and Clark Expedition sites. Since the expedition spent the most amount of time in North Dakota (one fourth of their trip according to the State Historical Society website), the Heritage Center seemed like a natural place to gain a sense of the history and flavor of the state as Lewis and Clark would have experienced it.
We weren’t disappointed. The first thing we saw when we got out of our car was a statue of Sakakawea, the Indian woman who served the expedition as an interpreter and guide. There is some disagreement over the spelling of her name. A display in the Center gives nearly 20 variations of her name, including Sakajawea, the one that seems to be the most popular.
The exhibits will give the visitor a broad overview of the state from its formation and up through modern times. The conflict between the Indians and the whites is part of the story as the two groups struggled over who would control the prairies. The saga of people migrating to the area and attempting to establish homes and a living for themselves is portrayed, both in its successes and failures.
In some ways, the story of North Dakota is the story of the United States and its emergence as a world power through the efforts of individuals and families. The dark side of the transformation of the land from the free, nomadic life of the Native American Indians to the settled and restrictive life of the whites is balanced by the presentation of human progress as it evolved on the plains. I was left, as I often am in such places, with a feeling of shame at how the Native Americans were treated and, in some instances, are still being treated.
Artifacts and photographs will help you appreciate the contributions North Dakota has made to the culture of the United States. Hands-on exhibits will let you experience what life was like in the “old days.” Films will help the past to come alive. Temporary exhibits focus on specific themes. A variety of programs throughout the year–lectures, films, slide shows, concerts, ethnic food tastings, and more–are open to the public.
If you don’t know North Dakota, the North Dakota Heritage Center is a good place to begin the learning process. You’ll discover that the state is more than just cold weather!