Building cultural bridges: A Native American and university apparel textiles educational program

Building cultural bridges: A Native American and university apparel textiles educational program

Williams, Robyne C

Abstract: The Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design faculty at North Dakota State University developed an educational exchange with the North Dakota Fort Berthold Native American community. The purpose of this program was to build a collaborative effort between a Native American reservation community college and an Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design department at a land-grant university. The objectives of the Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design Department were to understand and appreciate traditional Native American dress, to share information with the Native American community college on the selection, care, use, and marketing of textile products; and to encourage use of the department by the North Dakota Native American community as an educational resource. A framework for establishing a cultural exchange program is presented in this article, with emphasis on cultural sensitivity.

A wide chasm between the dominant Euro-American and the Native American culture still exists in North Dakota, a state with five Native American reservations. Although residing in the same state, the groups exist in their own cultures and seldom intermingle. What can be done to foster interaction between the faculty and the Native Americans residing on the reservation in the state? How and what can we learn from each other? A natural venue of contact between the two cultures is their educational institutions. (Each reservation has a tribal community college. Tribal colleges are funded by the federal government and are located on federal trust territory. It is the government’s treaty obligation and trust responsibility to provide education for American Indian tribes. Of the 29 tribal colleges in the United States, five are located in North Dakota.)

One way to foster communication is to focus on the commonalties that exist in both cultures. Clothing and textile traditions and knowledge provided a common element for this exchange. Native Americans have clothing and textile traditions to contribute to the land-grant university’s apparel/textiles knowledge; the faculty have information concerning characteristics and properties of textiles and the marketing of textile products.

To bridge the gap between the cultures, an educational reservation-university exchange was planned and brought about between the Department of Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design (ATID) of North Dakota State University (NDSU) and the Fort Berthold Community College (FBCC), one of five tribal community colleges on North Dakota reservations. The project was supported by a grant from the Planning, Priorities, and Resources Committee of North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. The program included cultural and technical aspects and afforded the university participants an intimate, firsthand experience of Northern Plains Native American cultures; in exchange, the Native American participants were introduced to specialized information on apparel and textiles.

This article reports on the components of a framework used by the Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design faculty at North Dakota State University to develop a cultural exchange program. The framework of the program focuses on: (1) understanding the history; (2) clear objectives that provide benefits for both groups; (3) building the bridge, including establishing trust and a network as well as exchanging the benefits; and (4) evaluation.

Understanding the History

Successful cultural exchange programs must be built on sensitivity and trust. Understanding cultural history is an effective way to develop sensitivity to the peoples’ life issues and traditions. The people of Fort Berthold were the first Native Americans to appear in the early written historical record of North Dakota. Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is made up of people from “The Three Affiliated Tribes,” which include the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan tribes. These three groups were not a nomadic people but settled in semipermanent villages along the Missouri River. They were excellent farmers and traders, trading their surplus corn, squash, and beans with other tribes. When the European fur traders explored the middle of America, the Missouri River tribes provided an existing network with the Great Plains tribes, Sioux, Assiniboin, Crow, and Pawnee (Lowie,1954).

The Mandan and Hidatsa gradually moved up the Missouri River in the 1700s. The Arikara lived further downstream on the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota. After the smallpox epidemic of 1781, the Mandan joined the Hidatsa on the Knife River in what is now North Dakota. The epidemic also caused the Arikara to move closer to the other tribes (Stewart, 1974). The three tribes banded together for protection against marauding bands. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark visited the Mandan Village on their journey to the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1804, the three tribes were wellestablished on the upper Missouri. Lewis and Clark wintered with the Mandans; and when the expedition left in the spring, Sakakawea, a Shoshone captured by the Hidatsa when she was a young girl, “piloted” the group through the country (Ahler, Thiessen, & Trimble, 1991).

The smallpox epidemic of 1837 resulted in the deaths of 60-70% of the Hidatsa and Mandan populations. A new village, called “Like-A-Fishhook” (sometimes known as Fort Berthold, which later became the name of the reservation designated for the three tribes), was founded in the 1840s by a small group of surviving Hidatsa and Mandan people. In 1862, the Arikara moved to Like-a-Fishhook Village. Because of crowded conditions and federal policies, the three tribes left Like-a-Fishhook Village and settled in separate communities on the reservation (Schneider,1991).

In 1934, the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan officially designated themselves the “Three Affiliated Tribes” and incorporated as a business. A dramatic challenge to the existence of the Three Affiliated Tribes came with the construction of North Dakota’s Garrison Dam in the 1950s. Before the construction of the dam, Missouri River flooding regularly caused loss of life and property, but it also replenished the fields of the three tribes. When the dam was constructed to control the floods, the Three Affiliated Tribes lost their ancestral homeland and, with it, their way of life. There are few jobs outside of farming in rural North Dakota. As alternatives, some of the people of Fort Berthold Reservation produce and sell textile products and crafts (Olson & Hatlen, 1995; Schneider, 1994).

This history of the Three Affiliated Tribes prompted a desire by NDSU faculty to learn more about their background and traditions from the people themselves and to provide students an opportunity to learn first-hand about the people of this culture. The culture’s rich textile traditions were still in place, although they had probably changed with the introduction of new materials and technology. Additionally, the faculty wished to communicate apparel and textile knowledge to the people on the reservation and at NDSU.

Objectives of the Exchange

Cultural exchange programs must be guided by clear objectives that will benefit both cultural groups. Three objectives were developed for this educational exchange program: (1) The Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design faculty and students would gain understanding and appreciation of Native American history and culture, with focus on Native American traditional dress; (2) the Fort Berthold Community College would gain information on the selection, care, use, and marketing of textile products; and (3) the Department of Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design would become an educational resource for the Fort Berthold Community College.

Building Bridges

The “bridge building” involved three phases: establishing trust, building a network of contacts, and exchanging the benefits at both sites. Of these phases, establishing trust and building the network of contacts were most critical for the success of the exchange.

Establishing Trust/Building a Network

The Apparel,Textiles, and Interior Design faculty wanted to raise their awareness of the Three Affiliated Tribes textile and apparel practices. To establish rapport with the Fort Berthold Community and the college, the faculty sought out university personnel with ties to Fort Berthold. The Native American Pharmacy Program Director, a registered member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, served as a consultant for the project and traveled to the reservation to encourage participation in the project. Also, the Minority Student Affairs director included an Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design faculty member in a North Dakota State University recruiting trip to Fort Berthold. She also invited the Native American visitors to take part in Native American Week activities at the university.

Plans for the exchange were coordinated by a committee that included faculty members from the Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design Department, the North Dakota State University consultant, the marketing and management instructor, and the academic dean from Fort Berthold Community College. The committee recruited adults who were willing to share their cultural heritage with others. The university consultant recruited the White Shield Indian Club to represent teenage youth from the reservation.

The reservation’s extension agent for Family and Consumer Sciences promoted the ATID educational programs held at Fort Berthold Community College. She encouraged teachers of sewing skills to participate in the workshops. Exchanging Benefits: Fort Berthold Residents at North Dakota State University

Representatives from the Fort Berthold Community College, Fort Berthold tribal community, and the White Shield Indian Club visited the university during Native American Week, a university-wide program designed to heighten awareness of Native American cultures. They included artists, story tellers, a linguist, a librarian, and teachers. A faculty member opened her home for a social gathering the first evening, enabling tribal representatives to meet and interact with faculty and students from the Apparel,Textiles, and Interior Design Department as well as invited campus guests.

Three activities were planned the next day. During the first activity, representatives participated in a workshop in the Textile Laboratory to test traditional and contemporary fabrics used to make pow-wow dress. Students directed the testing. The representatives examined and compared fabrics for strength, abrasion resistance, flammability, and color loss. Students shared their knowledge of textile properties with the representatives. Both groups evaluated fabrics for product selection.

In the second activity, the program “Finding Common Threads: A Traditional and Contemporary Apparel Review” was presented to approximately 150 people. The consultant told the history of the Three Affiliated Tribes and explained the significance of their tribes’ dress. Representatives modeled their pow-wow dress and explained its history and meaning. They shared stories with the university representatives and with the young people of the tribe to reinforce their tribal structure. A tribal elder whose grandfather designed her dress stated, “My mother made this shawl for me. My mother had eagle rights and made war bonnets. I lost my mother in 1990, and I put this outfit away for many years. I lost my father a year later. Today is the first day I have put [this outfit] on.”

During the third activity, North Dakota State University students and faculty examined the garments and accessories. Participants learned about the design, components, construction techniques, symbolism, and processes used to create the items.

This exchange provided many university students with their first opportunity to interact directly with Native American people and discover their culture. The visit provided Fort Berthold representatives with an introduction to North Dakota State University and its Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design Department. Both groups had an opportunity to share their knowledge and skills and to learn from each other.

Exchanging Benefits: North Dakota State University Faculty and Students at Fort Berthold

The week-long visit began with a trip to the Mandaree, North Dakota, Pow-Wow. This is an annual family/community celebration with music and dance during which many relatives return from out of town. The ceremony honors war veterans, families, and communities. This event is an excellent window into the cultural traditions. The dance regalia is especially powerful; most of the outfits are either made by the wearer or by a relative and given to the dancer. These textile gifts form an important bond between giver and receiver. The receiver is humbled but honored by the gift. The giver is honored, and his/her personal status is raised within their group. Value is placed on a person’s skill in creating textiles and clothing items. People who sew give gifts of themselves, thus building community ties.

On the return visit to Fort Berthold, Apparel,Textiles, and Interior Design faculty and students prepared and presented four two-hour workshops: (1) Selecting Textile Material and Fiber Identification; (2) Designing and Sewing Clothing; (3) Caring for Clothing and Textile Products; and (4) Finding New Markets for Arts and Crafts. To promote the workshops, the department faculty enlisted the help of the local NDSU extension agent, who encouraged community leaders in the textile and clothing area to attend the workshops. Local newspapers and radio stations were contacted, and flyers were distributed throughout the community. Among those attending the workshops were a tribal elder known for her sewing and quilting expertise, a Native American clothing designer who also works with the 4-H program, an extension master clothing construction volunteer, and the Fort Berthold extension agent.

Textiles and clothing books, purchased or donated by publishers, were presented to the First Berthold Community College Library. These resource books covered topics related to the four workshops, i.e., fibers, apparel design, clothing construction, and textile care, as well as economic development in textiles and clothing.

In workshop-related activities, the visiting group toured and visited with members of the Four Bears Museum, Wolf’s Trading Post, and a cut-and-sew business (a Native-owned firm that produces star quilts). Discussions focused on production strategies and the marketing of Native American products.

During a six-hour tour of the Fort Berthold Reservation, the university visitors heard legends and stories of the tribe. Present living conditions on the reservation were seen and described.

Evaluation: Objectives Accomplished This educational exchange opened many doors, and more interaction than ever before takes place today between North Dakota’s land-grant university and the Fort Berthold community as well as the Fort Berthold Community College.

The exchanges allowed the participants living in the same state to become better acquainted with people of different cultures and different perspectives. The understanding gained about the Native Americans from Fort Berthold and specifically their use of textile products has been incorporated into the classroom. Slides taken at the Mandaree Pow-Wow and the posters created for the “Traditional and Contemporary Apparel Review” are used as instructional aids by faculty and students. The students who participated have shared their experiences with classes and student groups.

Native American participants of the workshops gained practical knowledge of the identification, design, care, use, and marketing aspects of textile and apparel products. This knowledge is being disseminated to other individuals on the reservation. The gift of books to the library offered lasting textiles and clothing resources. The workshops identified a need at the Native American community college for publications in print and electronic media on the care of textile products, the maintenance of sewing machines, and the development of skills to create patterns for a variety of women’s dance dresses and related design details.

North Dakota State University’s Department of Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design serves as an educational resource for the state. The interactions among the project coordinators, workshop participants, and others from the Fort Berthold and surrounding areas promoted the department’s expertise in all aspects of textiles, including textile product production and marketing of textile products. The project developed collaborative programs between the Department, the Fort Berthold Community College, and the Fort Berthold community; it opened doors for further interaction. The faculty continue to consult with the reservation 4-H agent and with the Four Bears Museum. A graduate student from the Apparel, Textile, and Interior Design Department researched the marketing of Native American arts and crafts to retailers within North Dakota and the surrounding regions


From this land-grant university/Native American community college experience the following are suggested for successful cultural exchange programs: (1) develop sensitivity to history and culture; (2) find a commonality as a basis for the exchange; (3) be receptive and responsive to unfamiliar customs; and (4) establish linkages with people trusted by the culture.


Ahler, S. A.,Thiessen,T., & Trimble, M. K. (1991). People of the willows: The prehistory and early history of the Hidatsa Indians. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota Press.

Lowie, R. H. (1954). Indians of the Plains Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Olson, K. L. & Hatlen, M. J (1995). Native Americans in North Dakota: A statistical portrait, 1990. Fargo, ND: Department of Agricultural Economics, North Dakota State University.

Schneider, M. J. (1991). North Dakota’s Indian heritage. North Dakota Centennial Heritage Series. Grand Forks, ND: The University of North Dakota Press.

Schneider, M. J. (1994). North Dakota Indians: An introduction. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Schneider, M. J. & Porter, F, III, (1989). The Hidatsa. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Stewart, F. H. (1974). Mandan and Hidatsa villages in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Plains Anthropologist, 19, 287-302.

Robyne C. Williams is an assistant professor and Ann W. Braaten is an instructor in the Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design Department, North Dakota State University.

Copyright American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Fall 1997

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