• aliciaunderleenels

Public Art and Gardens at the North Dakota State Capitol

The Art Deco Capitol Building is the centerpiece of the North Dakota State Capitol Complex. But the capitol grounds are also bursting with sculptures, monuments and shaded walking paths. If you find yourself in Bismarck, it's worth a stroll.


Start at the Arboretum Trail, which is easily my favorite. It weaves through gardens, lush green grass and more than 75 different tree species that are found in the state. (There are small signs with names of the trees and shrubs, which helps if you're planning a little landscaping yourself.)

The public art at the North Dakota State Capitol Complex contains several sculptures and monuments, including this one, which is called "Pioneer Family." It was created by sculptor Arvard Fairbanks and donated in 1946. Arvard was born in Utah in 1897. He specialized in sculpting stories about the American west from the perspective of white settlers.


But it's not all manifest destiny. Indigenous historical figures and sculptures by Native American artists are also represented.


My favorite sculpture on the North Dakota State Capitol grounds is a sculpture of Sakakawea, who famously accompanied Lewis and Clark on their journey west. I always pay her a visit on my way to the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum. She stands right outside of this free museum on the edge of the Capitol Complex. (I recommend taking a few hours to explore the exhibits inside too.)

Sakakawea was a fascinating person who endured a horrifying amount of trauma by the time she was a teenager and she still managed to make history by crossing the country with her baby on her back. (I met a descendent of that baby in an Amtrak train dining car once and we had the nerdiest, most trivia-filled history chat you can imagine while my friend Liz looked on in bemused silence. It was great.)


I've spelled her name the way it's listed by the state. This is also the way that the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) spell it. But she was Lehmi Shoshane (from the land that shares its geography with the state of Idaho) and her name is spelled several different ways, depending on which language is used as a reference. Bonnie Butterfield, a Cherokee scholar at California State University, San Bernadino, tells us a little more about why Sakakawea's name has three spellings.



Sculptor Bennett Brien is an enrolled member of The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. He grew up in Belcourt, North Dakota and attended the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. The art world knows him for his dynamic sculptures made from rebar, like this one of a bison. But sports fans will recognize the now retired Native American logo he crafted for his alma mater, UND.


If you like Bennett's work, you can see more of his sculptures along North Dakota Scenic Highway 43, at Sky Dancer Casino and Hotel in his hometown of Belcourt and at the Polk Country Museum in Crookston, Minnesota. He also created several sculptures that reside on the UND campus in Grand Forks. You can also read more about Bennett Brien and his work in this "Native Arts and Cultures" profile.


This horse, titled "Cortes," is one of my favorites works by Bennett Brien. I love how it seems completely at home in this space. It's hard to believe that the horse's billowing mane is made of metal.

I've concentrated on some of my favorite pieces here. But you'll also find other sculptures on the North Dakota Capitol Grounds.


Some are whimsical. Some, like the memorials to fallen veterans, Peace Officers and warriors who received a Purple Heart, are stately and solemn. Others, like a French boxcar used to transport troops during both World Wats, illuminate hidden snippets of history.


There's much to see and even more to unpack. And this art and history lesson is totally free on the grounds of the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck.


What about you?

What's your favorite piece of public art on the Capitol Grounds?

What kind of public art do you gravitate toward?

What public art would you like to see more of?


Public art coverage is made possible in part by a grant from The Arts Partnership.


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