north dakota: the scandinavian heritage center & the knife river indian villages

I had a dream last night in Bottineau, North Dakota.  I dreamed that my friend Ed, who I used to work for in the State Department, hired me for some job.  I was excited and was acting like I would be a great benefit to him.  I was acting like I would make myself indispensable. I had some license (maybe Real Estate?) that I gave Ed cause to believe was still valid, although I suspected it might have expired. I remember organizing spiral notebooks quite matter-of-factly.

I wonder if I got this matter-of-fact attitude of being indispensable from Mary Adare in The Beet Queen (by Louise Erdrich) which I was reading before I went to sleep. 🙂

I left Bottineau at 8:20.  The drive to Minot, North Dakota was an hour and 20 minutes. It was a gloomy 49°F, but no rain yet.  Cornfields surrounded me, as they did through much of the Dakotas.

I wrote down questions in my notebook, looking up the answers later online:

  1. What kinds of trees are used in windbreaks? (Eastern red cedar, Northern white cedar, Lombardy poplar, red pine, many other pine trees including including eastern white pine, ponderosa pine, and loblolly pine).
  2. What are all those golden crops I see in North Dakota? (spring wheat, canola, barley, soybeans, dry beans, corn, as well as durum wheat, lentils, oats, and flaxseed)
  3. What was the golden stubble that showed a crop already harvested? (spring wheat: 52% of the crop was harvested by Sept. 2 according to AgWeek)

The land was flat in all directions.  I passed the Mouse River, and wetlands.  This was a land of horizontals; the only verticals were telephone poles, the tree windbreaks, and silos.

As I drove, the temperature dropped, and I rolled along 83S for 37 miles.  Moby sang “In this darkness, light my way” as heavy clouds hunched overhead. The roads in North Dakota were straight and flat, and a pretty red barn and white farmhouse nestled in a copse of trees. Blackened hay bales hunkered down against the coming rain in a green field.

I finally arrived in Minot, pronounced My’-not, and drove by the Minot Air Force base, a Boot Barn, and the Minot Gun Club.  A sign said DNT TXT N DRV. By this time, the clouds had unleashed and were dumping a deluge over the town.

My first stop of the day was the Scandinavian Heritage Center in Minot. It is the world’s only outdoor living museum dedicated to preserving the ethnic heritage of all five Scandinavian countries.  The buildings include a visitor center; a stabbur (storage house) from Telemark, Norway; a Finnish sauna; a Danish windmill; a Dala horse; a Stave Church Museum; an eternal flame brought to North Dakota from Norway; and a 230-year-old house from Sigdal, Norway.

A bit of trivia: Norwegians accounted for a large number or immigrants who came to North Dakota.  As 75% of the soil in their homeland was unsuitable for agriculture, they sought the fertile farmland here.  Only Ireland lost as great a percentage of its people to America.

According to a flyer put out by the State Historical Society of North Dakota:

For North Dakota, Scandinavians mean Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Icelanders, and Finns, descending in percentage of population.  In the Old World, they fought each other for economic and political power for over 600 years. They share common language roots and the Lutheran religion. With six years of compulsory education and literacy requirements in their countries, most of the immigrants from Scandinavia were literate before their migration to North Dakota.

By 1914, roughly 20% of all farmland in North Dakota was owned by Norwegians.  They farmed extensively in the eastern quarter, northwestern quarter, and north-central region of the state.  Some came to North Dakota “fresh off the boat,” but the vast majority had lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Iowa before moving west.

By the time I arrived, a drenching rain had engulfed the land; it was blustery and cold. Friendly folks greeted me in the Edward T. and Leona B Larson Visitors Center, especially one welcoming woman and Thorvold the troll.


Thorvold the troll and me

Trolls have been popularized in Nordic mythology and Scandinavian folklore. Norse trolls dwell in mountains, caves, and under the occasional bridge and are rarely helpful to human beings. Thorvold, who was very friendly, and his bench were hand carved and lived on the main floor of the Visitors Center.

I sloshed around the park, soaking my shoes and socks despite clenching an umbrella overhead.

The Hans Christian Andersen statue celebrates the author famous for his fairy tales, even though he wrote novels, plays, and travel articles.  One of the things his works taught was that beauty comes from within.


Hans Christian Andersen


Hans Christian Andersen statue

In 1928, the Danish windmill was built by Carl Olson in Powers Lake, North Dakota and was used to supply water and grind wheat for the family. It was donated to Roosevelt Park in the 1960s by Olson’s family.


Danish windmill

The 7’4″ bronze statue of Leif Eiríkssen was dedicated in honor of the Icelandic ancestors who came to America. According to the Vinlanda Saga of Iceland, “Leif the Lucky” was the first man of European stock to step ashore in America in about the year 1000.

Leif Eiríkssen is a fitting symbol for all North Americans whose heritage lies in Nordic countries. According to Saga tradition, his father, Erik the Red, was Norwegian.  Leif was born in Eiriksstadir, Iceland, lived and farmed at Brattahlid, Greenland, and served one winter under the Norwegian king in Trondheim.


Leif Eiríkssen statue


Scandinavian Heritage Center

The hillside waterfall and the surrounding area of the park commemorate the heritage of the mountains, streams, islands and lakes of Scandinavian homelands. About 600 gallons per minute of water flow over the waterfall in summer.  It was dedicated in 2000.


waterfall and ponds

The Stave Church Museum is a full-size, authentic replica of one of the finest-designed stave churches constructed in Norway. It was dedicated in 2000, and the inaugural service was held on October 9, 2001. It serves as a memorial to the pioneer immigrants who uprooted themselves from Scandinavia to make new homes in North America.

The Gol (Hallingdal) Norway Stavkirke was originally built in the mid-1200s and in 1882, by order of King Oscar II. This old and venerable “house of God,” which had risen over the Gol community for 700 years was dismantled and shipped to Oslo. In 1884, King Oscar II laid the cornerstone for the reconstructed church at Bygdøy Park in Oslo where today it forms part of the Norwegian Folk Museum.


Gol Stave Church Museum


Gol Stave Church Museum


Gol Stave Church Museum


Gol Stave Church Museum

A large 30-foot-tall Dala horse, which is the most recognized Swedish symbol in the world, was dedicated by the Swedish Heritage Association on October 10, 2000.

These brightly colored horses have been carved in various sizes by Swedish craftsmen since the early 1800s. The first Dala horses were plain wood, created as toys for children.  A hundred years later, they took on their familiar bright colors and kurbit (flower-patterned) saddle and harness designs.


Dala horse


Dala horse

The Sigdal House is the oldest in North Dakota.  Built about 1771, from the Vatnãs area of Sigdal, Norway, it was selected to be representative of a typical house from old-time Norway. It was restored according to museum standards, then dismantled and shipped to Minot. It was dedicated in October of 1991.


Sigdal House

The Stabbur is a storehouse used in Scandinavian countries to provide safe, dry storage for food and other commodities. The one in Minot is a replica of the “Torvtjønnlofter” built about 1775 in Rauland in Telemark, Norway. Ottar Romtveit of Rauland built the stabbur, disassembled it for shipping to Minot, and then came over with his crew to construct it. It was dedicated during the Norsk Høstfest on October 9, 1990.



According to a brochure distributed by the Scandinavian Heritage Park, “immigrants from Scandinavia were unable to bring much with them to this land, however, they had an inherited strength of character and perseverance that enabled them to complete the difficult tasks of life in the New World.

“While these new citizens loved their adopted land, they still remembered with great fondness the friends, relatives, and familiar places they left behind in the “old country.” They often longed to see the majestic fjords and walk through the meadow beside a cool, clear stream that rippled down from the old stave church on the hill.”

Information about the Center comes from “Your Personal Guidebook for Visiting the Scandinavian Heritage Center, Minot, ND, USA”


When I left Minot at 10:35, it was still pouring rain and my feet were soaked through. I drove a 4-lane highway from Minot south, through wetlands and a wind farm with turbines twirling in the rain. The temperature had dropped to 47°F.  A wall of grain elevators loomed on the horizon.  I noted that Case Farm equipment seemed to be red, while John Deere was green and gold.  I recognized the old dinosaur symbol on a Sinclair station and crossed Lake Sakakawea, which was like an ocean.

On 200W, I drove 21 miles on the Lewis & Clark Trail, part of which crossed the Garrison Dam. I saw a white-tailed deer, or maybe an antelope.  On Road 37, I drove 10 miles, some through fields of sunflowers, used for seeds and oil.

Just after noon, I arrived at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. A fourth grade school group from Bismarck, North Dakota was there and I kept having to reroute to avoid them.  It was still blustery and pouring rain.

The Knife River region has been home to people for perhaps 11,000 years. Early written records and cultural materials document that the Hidatsa and Mandan had lived on these river terraces for 500 years when they first made contact with Europeans.

French-Canadian trader Pierre de la Verendrye was the first European to record contact with the Mandan of the upper Missouri in 1738. When explorer David Thompson reached the area in 1797, Hidatsa culture was still healthy.  After Lewis & Clark’s visit in 1804, the pace of change quickened. An influx of fur traders undermined the tribes’ key role as middlemen in the economy.

Village people grew dependent on European horses, weapons, cloth, and iron pots.  Disease and overhunting of the bison weakened an evolving culture.

Explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied and artists Karl Bodmer and George Catlin portrayed a society in transition.  The federal government removed the tribes to reservations, gave members allotted lands, and forced them to grow wheat.  It banned Hidatsa societies and rituals.  The changes eroded ancient relationships with the land and ended a way of life within one generation.

I first ducked into the earthlodge to get out of the rain. Native American tribes living in the Upper Missouri River Valley, which included the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people, developed the unique earth and wooden home to fit their sedentary agricultural lifestyle.

In the Hidatsa society, women owned and maintained the earthlodge or “awahte.” The women cut four cottonwood posts and beams and, with the help of the men, erected a central support structure. The women then erected an outer circle of posts and cross beams, leaned split logs to form a wall, and lifted the rafters into place. On top of this framework, the women laid bunches of willow branches, dried prairie grass, and thick sod. It took them about 7-10 days to complete the lodge, which would be between 30-60 feet in diameter and 10-15 feet high; they were rebuilt every ten years or so.


earthlodge at Knife River Indian Villages

An earthlodge housed between ten and twenty people, usually sisters and their families. Beds were situated around the perimeter. Personal items were kept under the beds while general use items were kept on raised platforms similar to bed frames. A typical earthlodge also contained a corral for prized war and hunting ponies on one side of the door.

The main focus in the earthlodge was the central fire pit with smoke escaping through a hole in the roof. In the event of heavy rain or snow, an old bullboat could be turned over the hole and propped up to allow smoke to escape. Earthlodge occupants sat around the central fire on reed mats including the atuka, a high-sided seat reserved for the oldest man of the household. The atuka was also offered to visitors as a sign of respect.

The transitional time between summer and winter was used to store food. The cache pit was a large bell-shaped hole in the floor lined with willow and dry grass and filled with dried corn, beans, squash, and sunflower. The women built several cache pits both inside and outside the earthlodge and covered them over to hide their location. Parfleches were rawhide containers hung from the ceiling used to store a variety of items such as clothes, dried foods, trade items, craft materials, and hides.

I tried to walk to the Awatixa Village, also known as Sakakawea Village; it was a one mile round trip, but I never made it.  I only saw Awatixa Xi’e Village, also known as the Lower Hidatsa Village, because it was so windy and wet that I was getting soaked even under my umbrella; this village was established as early as 1525 CE and continuously occupied until about 1780-1785.

Before coming into the visitor center, I’d put on my Tevas because my tennis shoes were soaked; while I walked, my feet were freezing and the hood of my jacket kept getting blown off my head.  My pants were soaked.  I walked about halfway and turned around.

I came upon a Hidatsa Garden.  In mid-spring, women planted sunflowers using simple tools. In late May or early June, they planted corn.  Squash and beans were planted between every 8-10 rows of corn. Annual flooding of the river terraces brought fresh soil to the gardens. Gardening the terraces was necessary because the prairie sod was almost impossible to break with a bison scapula (shoulder blade) hoe.


Hidatsa Garden


path to Awatixa Village

I stood at the edge of a large village of earthlodges, Awatixa Xi’e Village. When the dwellings collapsed, they left circular mounds of earth around hardened, saucer-like floors.  From that pattern, one can envision the extent of the village and guess the number of inhabitants.

The bowl-shaped earthlodge depressions are surprisingly close together, leaving barely enough room for corn-drying scaffolds between dwellings. This suggests a close-knit social structure and the need for protection against marauding tribes.  From the air, 51 earthlodge depressions are visible. According to archeological evidence, people occupied the site for centuries before the Awatixa built this village.  They abandoned it after the smallpox epidemic in 1780, but later returned and built a new village at the river’s edge.


Awatixa Xi’e Village


Awatixa Xi’e Village


Awatixa Xi’e Village

Molehill-like mounds two to four feet high near the village edge are middens or garbage heaps packed with broken pottery, bone tools and flaked stone. Shattered buffalo bones are the most frequently unearthed objects found here.


Awatixa Xi’e Village

Back in the warmth of the Visitor Center, I looked at some of the displays.


decorated buffalo hide


Mandan Village (1830s) by George Catlin

The permanent Knife River villages became centers of trade between widespread Indian people of the Plains. The peak trade period from mid- to late-summer brought goods to these villages from every coast.

Knife River flint, from quarries 60 miles to the west, was the region’s first known trade item. With the flint, they made points, blades, knives, and tools with many uses. Surplus food was also used for trade.  They also traded goods that other tribes brought into the villages – obsidian from Wyoming, copper from the Great Lakes, and dentalium shell from the West Coast.  These experienced traders were ready to deal in European goods, such as glass beads, guns, horses and metal items, when they arrived.


Trade with the Hidatsa & Mandan

Summer was a time of intense gardening. A Green Corn Ceremony celebrated summer’s first green corn. Berries roots and fish supplemented their diet.  Upland hunting yielded bison, deer, and small game for meat, hides, bones, and sinew.


Green Corn Dance of the Hidatsa, by George Catlin

Skill on horseback became crucial to hunting the buffalo.  In early summer, hunters left the village to follow buffalo on the plains.  Women sometimes accompanied their husbands to help butcher meat and dress hides. Meat would be smoked or dried in the hunting camp.


Winter Village of the Minatarres, by Karl Bodmer

The explorer Maximillian described women playing with a game ball in 1833.  “They toss it on the foot and then keep it in the air by kicking it.”

Porcupine quills were used for decoration in early times.  Much work was needed in removing spines, dyeing, sorting, softening, flattening, and sewing them into  place on clothing and other personal items.

Winter was a time of storytelling, game-playing, and the passing on of traditional knowledge. Buckskin dolls kept children company during the long winter months.

After watching a video about a Native American Indian’s life in the village, I was on my way to Washburn, North Dakota.

Information comes from the Knife River Villages pamphlet and museum and park signs posted by the National Park Service.

*Thursday, September 12, 2019*