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Artifacts and art tell us who we were and are

Following the 150th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of innocent Indian women, children and men at Whitestone Hill Battlefield, some things I thought I knew about art became much clearer.

I knew artifacts helped explain prehistoric people's activities ... and art "evidence" has always been valued, albeit differently to different mindsets and objectives. But I've struggled to explain why art is so important and should be studied in higher education.

Diane Rogness, director of State Historical Society of North Dakota sites (southern region), found the words I was looking for during the August sesquicentennial.

She told me about Kevin Locke's talk. Locke is a Lakota Sioux historian, speaker, educator and dancer. Rogness was in a large tent where Locke did the hoop dance and spoke during Whitestone's commemoration. Because I was teaching groups of youngsters, I missed his performance.

Rogness said his speech was profound:

"In the dominant culture, art is considered frivolous," Locke said. "But in our culture, art tells us who we are."

I could not have said it better. Art shows us who we were/are. That was the premise in grad school when we were excavating Etruscan tumuli, or mounds ...

Archeologists reverently approached the findings carefully dug from the ground. "Treasures," "gems" and gasps of amazement were expressed when some rare, 3,000-year-old personal items were found.

We assume all "histories" will be written or somehow recorded so we can easily interpret them. If we go back more than three or four generations, that may not be true. Languages change. The meanings of words change. But images, especially images showing people or animals, are more readily interpreted. That gives researchers a "jumping off place" to interpret written symbols.

Locke's words will resonate inside me from now on. We all have a historical lineage. Photos, clippings, journals and simple sketches/notes give every person a beginning point. Tracing the past is simple, according to Phyllis Bratton, head librarian at Raugust Library at the University of Jamestown: all we need are names and places.

Bratton listed a number of reliable methods for genealogy research. (The library has free links usable by the public for ancestor tracking.) She just completed another master's degree in museum/library archives and soon will be tackling archived collections (art included).

Bratton and her staff will have the items preserved and marked in order to trace location and accessions. This addition will make Jamestown a research hub for anyone seeking information on Dakota Territory, rail routes, Fort Seward and the ancient burial mounds, as well as other collections open for perusal.

It will not replace other collection locations. Instead, it will enhance.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.

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