Hands-on history brings 500 seventh graders to Fort Totten

Ray Maloney, Sports
Shelia Sears as a hide tanner for Living History Field Day.

FORT TOTTEN, North Dakota — History sprang to life Monday for nearly 500 students from more than 15 schools from around the Lake Region and other parts of North Dakota as the 18th annual Living History Field Day was held at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

"An event like this allows the students to learn a little bit about the culture and the lifestyle of another era," said Becca Romfo, who brought some 50 students from Langdon to Monday's festivities at the fort, which was originally built in 1867. "It gives them all a chance to get an idea of what it might have been like to be a boarder or a helper at the fort."

The highlight of the day's festivities was the presentation of world-renowned storyteller and musician Keith Bear.

"The message I try to convey is that cultural diversity is not so diverse," said Bear, a New Town resident, who has been entertaining crowds of young and old alike since 1994.

"We all have wants and desires and basically we all want the same things," he added.  "Being a Native American is not about the color of your skin ... it's a birthright and we need to take care of the land we call ours and take care of the people around us."

Bear said he is a clan relative of famed Sakakawea, who helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-1806. That party journeyed through parts of what would later become South Dakota and North Dakota, after President Thomas Jefferson obtained the land in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 before the explorers set out to find a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean.

Bear used stories and songs as he shared the history of his heritage and the massive and widespread land Lewis and Clark encountered with the help of Sakakawea.

Bear told the students that the Mandan, Hidatsu and Arikara tribes were prevalent in the area during the time of the expedition and all three tribes had a respect and understanding of the lands they called home and they all had a respect for other peoples and welcomed Lewis and Clark more than 200 years ago.

Bear, who admits he cannot read a musical note, performed a number of songs on a series of flutes. The songs, in his native tongue, extolled the virtue of the lands and the people that called the northern prairies home.

Bear said he began telling his tales and performing his music at a wedding in 1994.

"It kind of snowballed from there," he said.

Bear has performed numerous times at the Kennedy Honors Center in Washington, DC, and has traveled overseas more than a dozen times to spread the history of North Dakota and the region.

About Fort Totten

What eventually became Fort Totten was the result of a treaty entered into by the United States on Feb. 19, 1867 that provided for a reservation near Devils Lake and construction on the Fort began later that same year.

Small groups of Sisseton, Wahpeton and Cuthead Sioux made their way to the area and to the fort, which protected overland passage from Minnesota to the Missouri River and Montana.

The U.S. military provided provisions and protection for some three years until it was deemed military presence was unnecessary, and in some cases, detrimental to the local tribes. The fort, which originally consisted of crude log structures and was surrounded by a stockade, remains largely intact, was disbanded in 1870.

The site was turned over to the state of North Dakota in 1960 for preservation as a historic site.