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Maximilian and Bodmer 175 years later

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BISMARCK, N.D. – A famous expedition brought American Indian artifacts to museums in Germany. Thanks to a recent symposium, items from the collection have returned for the first time.

The Dakota Institute presented “The Travels of Maximilian and Bodmer” Oct. 23 – 27 in Bismarck. The symposium commemorated the 175th anniversary of the Europeans’ winter among the Mandan and Hidatsa.

Prince Maximilian, a scientist, and Swiss artist Karl Bodmer lived six months at Fort Clark near Mandan and Hidatsa villages. Their North American expedition lasted three years and resulted in a travel journal, artwork, and extensive scientific and ethnographic collections.


“When Bodmer and Maximilian came up, I think of them as being extremely fortunate,” said Gerard Baker, superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and member of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Smallpox decimated the tribes in 1837, five years after the European travelers. The Mandan suffered the hardest: their population fell from roughly 2,000 to 200 in six months.

“If Bodmer and Maximilian had come back, they would have seen a completely different tribe,” Baker said. “They would have seen a tribe that was devastated by smallpox, that had already lost many of their ceremonies due to the fact that they did not have time to pass those ceremonies on to the younger ones.”

Baker was one of 13 speakers at the symposium, joining top Maximilian and Bodmer scholars from around the world. The lectures provided myriad perspectives on the expedition.

Elliot West, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, opened the event with “Myths of Virgin Lands and ‘Vanishing’ Indians.” He explained that Maximilian and his contemporaries dreamed of going to North America and finding “this timeless, changeless landscape and human society.”

“While it was a beautiful dream, it was just not true. The West was by no means a land outside of change. The West had been a changing world from the very first time people had inhabited it, for 12,000 years. Those changes were certainly abroad when Maximilian was moving into this world, and they were accelerating.”

Maximilian and Bodmer arrived in urban Boston on July 4, 1832. Their first encounter with American Indians occurred in St. Louis, where a delegation of Sauk and Fox Indians was visiting their imprisoned chief, Black Hawk.

The Europeans joined with the American Fur Company for the trip west of St. Louis on the Missouri River. Local hostilities in present-day Montana forced the expedition to turn back after staying the summer at Fort McKenzie. Through extensive visits with the Mandan and Hidatsa during the winter, they joined a list of famous, published guests that included Lewis and Clark and George Catlin.

At the symposium in Bismarck, three Europeans presented lectures: Sonja Schierle from the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart, Germany; Peter Bolz, from the Berlin Museum of Ethnology; and Hartwig Isernhagen, from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

The Stuttgart and Berlin museums each own part of Maximilian’s American Indian collection. Both museums are involved with Isernhagen in a separate Maximilian and Bodmer exhibit upcoming in Zurich, Switzerland.

Their trans-Atlantic perspectives complemented that of American scholars speaking on subjects ranging from fur trapping to archaeology. Native voices provided a human context for the academic talk.

Baker, along with George Horse Capture, National Museum of the American Indian; Rosemarie Mandan, Three Affiliated Tribes; and Marilyn Hudson, Three Affiliated Tribes Museum administrator, explained the continuation of traditional customs today, the changes that followed Maximilian, and the preservation of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara identity. Although Baker said the Maximilian journals only scrape the surface of village life before smallpox, they remain a valuable reference: “The more journals you read, you can read between the lines and start understanding that way of life, but not totally.”

The symposium included visits to Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara village sites, in addition to a preview of text for a Maximilian exhibit at

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the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn. At the interpretive center, attendees viewed Bodmer’s complete set of 81 aquatints and the artifacts on loan from Stuttgart, Germany.

Artifacts relevant to the Three Affiliated Tribes include Hidatsa moccasins, a hoop and pole game, and a stone axe head. The exhibit also included an Ojibwa birch bark container and pair of Seneca moccasins. Schierle said the items would remain in North Dakota until Dec. 31, 2009.

“They’re very squeamish about shipping that stuff across the Atlantic because of conservation questions,” said Dakota Institute Director Clay Jenkinson. “There’s also some fear that if these things come to North America, they might have a hard time getting them back. So, we’re trying to work out conditions of trust.”

The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation initiated the Dakota Institute in April. In May, the institute sent Jenkinson to Germany to establish relationships with the Maximilian collections.

David Borlaug, president of the foundation, knew Schierle from her visits to North Dakota. She served as the contact for arranging meetings with Maximilian’s relatives, Prince Carl and Princess Isabella Wied, Isernhagen in Switzerland and Peter Bolz in Berlin.

The Dakota Institute was unable to borrow any items from the Berlin museum due to short notice; however, Jenkinson said he hopes future loans will be possible.

“The Travels of Maximilian and Bodmer” was the first symposium at the new Dakota Institute.

Jenkinson said the institute would act as a think tank to address the big issues relevant to the region, such as the “quiet” tension between white and Indian communities in North Dakota.

“There’s still a lot of residual racism in the white population,” he said. “It’s not open racism, it’s structural racism: it’s racism that people would be shocked if you pointed it out to them. So, there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done, and the only way that healing is going to occur is if the two cultures start to talk to each other.”