NORTH DAKOTA: REMOTE, UNDER-APPRECIATED GEM
Approaching Minot, North Dakota, by air, the landscape looks like a large, flat quilt of green rectangles. I am in this remote corner of the United States to explore the wide open spaces, the big skies, the ruler-straight roads and the cowboy mentality.
Following a roughly rectangular loop around the northwest part of the state, I head south then west to my first stop, New Town, nestled on the shore of Lake Skakawea, which, created by damming the Missouri River, is like a long slithering anaconda of water. I am excited, for this weekend, New Town, on the Fort Berthold Reservation, home to the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa Nations, is hosting the Little Shell Powwow.
I meet Jason Morsette, a Tribal Tourism manager. “We have many attractions,” he says, “but the powwow is central to our tourism strategy.” That evening, I watch the Grand Entrance, a mass of dancers wearing colourful traditional regalia of feathers and beads, all hopping to the ferocious beat of singers and drummers. It is like a kaleidoscope in vivid technicolour!
Small children dressed in traditional costumes wander happily in the midst of dance competitions, trying to imitate their elders. Circles of men pound on large drums and sing, creating a throbbing beat for the dances.
Powwow philosophy is becoming clear: The elaborate outfits are made by the dancers themselves or by their close relatives. Nothing is store bought. And everybody participates!
A rodeo is part of the powwow, after all, this is cowboy country and Indians love horses. At the opening, Jason Morsette, dressed in full Native regalia including an impressive war bonnet, sings the national anthem in his native language. Then the mayhem begins. The bulls are tough, angry critters and I quietly give thanks that I’m a writer and not a bull rider.
Driving west, the landscape’s flatness is enhanced by slight rolling, like waves on a lake. The roads are straight and fast, and people few. This part of the state is underlain by oil deposits. Their vastness — and the unquenchable human desire for this liquid energy — is shown by numerous pumps quietly rotating in fields. After dark their flares are like fairy lights scattered in the vast landscape.
Next morning, after overnighting in Watford City, I drive to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Entering the south access I’m surprised to see an enormous shaggy buffalo grazing beside the road. Furtively, I sneak a photo.
The road wends through a maze of hoodoos, knobs, ridges and buttes. What a transformation from the prairies! Buffalo share the land with antelope, deer and prairie dogs. Yellow asters line the road. Best of all, it is not crowded and the sun sparkles.
Sitting in the River Bend Overlook shelter, built during the depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, I gaze down at the Little Missouri River, and wonder how a gangling, young Theodore Roosevelt was influenced by this unusual landscape.
Heading eastward brings me to Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Stanton. An earthen lodge covered in grass and wildflowers and filled with artifacts shows how the Hidatsa lived in times past. The lodge provided shelter during the bitter northern plains winters.
Following straight roads, I enter Bismarck, the state capital. At a stoplight a rough, Hells-Angels type, sits astride his chopper, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He wears no helmet, and a stars-and-stripes flag flaps from his back fender. But he is friendly and lets me snap his photo.
Bismarck has much to offer. I visit the domed legislative building, and spend long hours at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum with its outstanding displays of dinosaurs. My favourite, however, is the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, whose 1,000 acres offer hiking, biking, horse-back riding and a dramatic look at history with a museum and many rebuilt block houses and cornerstones of the original fort. I wander through six reconstructed earthen lodges of the On-A-Slant Indian Village where an interpretive program shows how the agricultural Natives lived here for centuries.
Heading back to the Minot, white wind turbines dot the landscape like tall, elegant swans. The large blades wink at me, urging me to return soon to this land of powwows, rodeos, hoodoos, straight roads and friendly people.
IF YOU GO:
Tourism information: www.ndtourism.com
PHOTOS: Hans Tammemagi
1-Young ladies jingle-dress dancers await the judges verdict
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