Friday 25 September 2009

North Dakota: History Rides Again

As intensely as I might have tried to peer through the mists of time, I would never have dreamed that one day I’d be having an up close and personal encounter with the original headdress of Sitting Bull.

But here I was a few days ago, in Medora, North Dakota, inside the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, eyeballing the handsome historical artefact in its tall display case. A display case it was about to part company with.

Medora is a cowboy town in the infamous Badlands. It was once a thriving ranching settlement, founded in 1883 by French aristocrat the Marquis de Mores, and today it’s an entertaining jumble of restored shopfronts, tourist attractions, and bars and restaurants done out in Wild West decor.

With much of the place owned by a foundation, Medora is part tourist attraction and part real town, with a vibrant, compact centre.

The Cowboy Hall of Fame is about more than ranching and rodeo; it also celebrates the Native American culture of the region. As a sparsely settled place, North Dakota has a higher Native American proportion of its population than most other US states, and it was this connection which drew our attention today.

Coincidentally, the day our group of travel writers hit town was the day that the headdress of the victor of the Battle of Little Bighorn was to be returned to his descendants, via a college of the Sioux people within the Standing Rock Reservation to the south.

Since we were there, we were invited to attend a short ceremony conducted by Phil Baird, board president of the Hall of Fame and a Native American himself, to send the headdress on its way. The display case was opened and, as we stood looking on, Baird undertook a ‘smudging ceremony’, wafting the smoke from a smouldering feather along the length of the headdress.

As part of the ceremony, Baird spoke both English and Native American words, addressed the four points of the compass, and asked us to add our own silent thoughts to the occasion. Then, the event completed, the headdress was taken from the case, lain carefully on an indigenous star quilt, and transferred to a van for an escort from an officer of the local sheriff’s department.

It was a moving ceremony, undertaken with great conviction and emotion by Baird. As there were only ten people present, including we four Australian journalists, we felt greatly honoured at being included at such a significant event at the last moment. Especially, I suppose, as we were cultural outsiders; although, as I mentioned in last week's post about Montana, there are often similarities between Australia and the USA. The smudging ceremony, for example, reminded me of Aboriginal smoking ceremonies that I've witnessed.

The Cowboy Hall of Fame has, of course, now lost an important exhibit, along with a gun that once belonged to ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, who had a working relationship with Sitting Bull in the post-Little Bighorn days (both items had been held in trust on behalf of the rightful owners). But it seemed fitting that the headdress should be back with the chief’s people, and hopefully visitors will eventually be able to view it in its new home.

But the institution still has plenty of excellent exhibits tracing the cultures of Native Americans, ranching and rodeos - the horse being the common factor of all three. And Medora itself is a lot of fun, with cowboy bars serving huge steaks; shops and hotels that look like they’ve dropped in from the 1800s; and the neighbouring Theodore Roosevelt National Park, packed with distinctive Badlands scenery and roaming wildlife from prairie dogs to bison.

The Wild West is long gone, of course; but its echoes linger in North Dakota.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of North Dakota Tourism, and V Australia.


  1. It will be interesting to see how the promotion of indigeneity as a touristic experience is juxtaposed with the need to preserve its authenticity. Somehow or other, we don't do this very well in Asia, and every "tribal" encounter turns out to be a faux and kitschy one, replete with cheap souvenirs, dances and all.

  2. I must admit, this sounds intriguing. In my ignorance, I would have expected a tourist trap only, not a real and moving ceremony.