The Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College located in New Town, N.D., will partner with UND on a $500,000 federal grant to preserve Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara language and culture.

The grant, which comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will provide funding to bolster and expand the Three Affiliated Tribes’ digital collection of critically endangered language resources, and other at-risk traditional knowledge.

NHSC students and faculty will conduct interviews with tribal elders for the language component of the project, as well as build a traditional foodways skills lab that will feature a kitchen where faculty, students and community members can practice traditional preservation techniques.

“This partnership will help bridge gaps in preserving and revitalizing Three Affiliated Tribes’ cultural and traditional lifeways by helping us train the next generation of caretakers,” said Twyla Baker, NHSC president. “We are excited to enter into this partnership on such culturally significant work with our colleagues at UND.”

The grant will be split between the two universities, with NHSC receiving 60%.

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According to NHSC, there are no fluent Mandan speakers, and prior to the pandemic, there were between 30 to 50 fluent Arikara speakers and about 100 fluent Hidatsa speakers.

The new kitchen facility at NHSC will also feature climate-control technology to ensure proper storage of NHSC's seed cache as well as materials needed for demonstrations on seed drying and plant processing, including those used for medicinal purposes. The skills lab will also be used for community gatherings.

UND faculty will work on digitizing hundreds of boxes of papers from William Langer, who served two terms as governor of North Dakota in the 1930’s before serving in the Senate, as well as other political papers from from Usher L. Burdick, a former state representative and lieutenant governor, who also served a lengthy stint in the U.S. House. NHSC and UND will create educational resources for use in the state’s new K-12 Native American history curriculum, and will be a part of a special initiative on the NHSC campus.

“These three tribes were among the first occupants of what became known as the Dakota Territory – long before settlers arrived,” said UND President Andrew Armacost. “It is fitting that we partner with Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in this important endeavor to preserve these valuable resources for current and future generations to study. This grant award is another advancement for UND’s ongoing efforts to not only strengthen its American Indian Studies program, but also to digitally preserve and make available critical historical and cultural information about the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.”

According to a release from UND, there are about 900 boxes of the Langer papers with another 38 that came from Burdick’s office. UND will emphasize digitizing papers that shed light on the creation of Garrison Dam, which was finished in 1953. Portions of the Langer papers have already been digitized and are available on UND’s Scholarly Commons website.

The Three Affiliated Tribes opposed the construction of the dam, as did some farmers and other environmental groups, said Crystal Alberts, associate professor of English and digital humanities specialist at UND, who is overseeing the university’s part of the project.

The construction of Garrison Dam across part of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in central North Dakota, “almost totally destroyed” the way-of-life of the people who live there, according to the historical section of the Three Affiliated Tribes' website. Tribe members were relocated to “isolated holdings” on the reservation, with little effort to reestablish a small village environment.

“Sometimes families would be eating dinner and the houses would be lifted off of the blocks and they would start to move it, because they didn’t check and see if a family was inside,” Alberts said.

In addition to government papers about Garrison Dam, Alberts said they would digitize then make available on UND’s website letters from tribe members about their experiences during that time, as part of preserving the history of an event that impacted people living on the reservation.

Alberts said the project to preserve culture and language is even more important in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Some Tribal elders, who may be some of the last living embodiments of those cultures, have died because of the illness.

“I can't think of anything that would be more meaningful than working to preserve languages that are so critically endangered and traditional knowledges that are held by just a few people,” Alberts said. “The fact that I get to teach students how to do this kind of preservation work on top of it ... the world all comes together in ways that are really meaningful to me.”