WASHBURN Tragedy struck the Mandan tribe when a smallpox epidemic decimated the tribe in 1837, forcing survivors to join with the neighboring Hidatsa. But before that, two artists who visited the tribe painted scenes that recorded everyday life before the catastrophe.
The works of those artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer are on display this summer at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn.
Art lining the museum walls show tribal members at play, hunting game or dancing, and buffalo on the Plains. One new display at the center honors the famous Mandan chief Four Bears who died in the smallpox epidemic that irrevocably changed the lives and traditions of those who survived him.
Kevin Kirkey, interpretive resource manager, shows off an exhibit on Four Bears at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn.
Catlin, who first traveled into Native American territory with Gen. William Clark on a diplomatic mission, eventually visited some 50 tribes between 1830 and 1836, including the Mandan. Bodmer was hired as an artist by German explorer Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied and accompanied him from 1832 through 1834 on his Missouri River expedition.
The exhibit of Catlin's work "Catlin's Hunting Scenes and Amusements" will be at the center through Sept. 15. The center also has a collection of Bodmer's aquatints, thanks to a gift to the foundation by Alvera Bergquist.
Other displays at the museum showcase the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1805 and the history of the area. There is a Centennial Farm display that lists farms in North Dakota that have belonged to the same family for more than 100 years. Different events are scheduled for throughout the summer months at both the interpretive center and at nearby Fort Mandan.
"There's something different going on every week, every month," said Kevin Kirkey, interpretive resource manager for the Fort Mandan Foundation.
Kirkey said a thread that weaves its way through all of the exhibits is the influence of Thomas Jefferson and the Age of Enlightenment. The Lewis and Clark Expedition and other explorations were done in the name of looking for resources that would help U.S. commerce. Ethnographers like Prince Max traveled to territory largely unexplored by Europeans in the interest of cataloguing plants, animals and the customs of indigenous peoples.
Kirkey said there are approximately 35,000 visitors per year at the center, from all 50 states and foreign countries. In recent years, the center has been visited by German and Austrian tourists. It is an advantage that one of the tour guides is able to speak to them in German, said Kirkey. More visitors come to the museum during the summer months, said Kirkey, but some visitors also like to visit the center in the winter, at the same time of year that Lewis and Clark were there. Admission to the museum is $7.50 for adults and $5 for K-12 and college students. Members of the Journey Fund get free admission to the museum.
Soon, there will be even more to see. A groundbreaking for a new addition that will nearly double the available space at the museum will likely be held later this year, said Kirkey. He said the center will add 91,000 square feet to the museum and will include convention center space, a research library, meeting rooms, additional display space and restroom facilities. The addition is being paid for with state money and private fundraising. The foundation is currently running an $8 million capital campaign for improvements, said Kirkey. This newest expansion will probably not be the end of improvements to the museum, either, said Kirkey.