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Holten: America’s best kept secret is North Dakota

I have a secret for you, North Dakota. Your biggest asset is not oil.

That’s right. You’ve got some other things on your plate that have been around for a whole lot longer and will still be here long after all the black gold has been sucked out of the shale and digested by your big green and yellow plow puller or bright blue four-wheeler.

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It’s history! Believe it or not, you’re sitting on a gold mine, a treasure trove and a pot at the end of a rainbow, all in one. You are the final frontier and the Wild West. In fact, you are where the whole story of the Wild West ended.

You remember Sitting Bull, don’t you? The great Hunkpapa Lakota holy man who has been known by more people in the last century and a half than Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber combined?

He’s the guy that historian’s credit with helping a fair-haired Georgie Custer, an upcoming presidential candidate — or so he thought — author his own demise at the Little Big Horn, even though he never actually left his tepee, preferring to stay behind and chant a prayer or two.

Born in the Dakota Territory, technically 2 inches south of the North Dakota line — neither North Dakota or South Dakota existed at the time — he spent his afternoons, a decade before the battle at the Little Big Horn, attacking Fort Berthold, Fort Stevenson and Fort Buford, all located in sunny North Dakota in case you didn’t know, as a protest against government policies, 100 years before hippies ever thought of whining in the streets in Berkley, Baltimore and Boston.

One time, as a side note, he attacked a wagon train by Marmarth and was shot in the left hip and the bullet exited through the small of his back. He somehow lived.

If he was doing those things today, in 2014, he’d be regularly appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, starring in films with Ron Burgundy and touring the country participating in a lecture series. Oh, come to think of it, he did tour the country with Will Bill’s Wild West Show, not to mention he was and is as famous as anyone who’s ever appeared on Letterman.

That’s just one tidbit of your history, North Dakota, and there are thousands more. But for some reason, over the years, whoever determines these things when it comes to promoting the state, has skipped over really delving into most of these historical gold nuggets.

Instead we promote the Peace Garden, a nice place, but really? Or we promote a mall in the eastern part of the state located on some of the least picturesque terrain in the nation. Then there’s that big man-made pond in the middle of the state that might have walleyes as big as baby rhinos. We also love to promote giant bison and cows standing on hills.

Do you know what other states say when we promote that? They say nothing because they are chuckling too hard.

“They want us to travel thousands of miles to see that?” They say, “I don’t think so.”

Oh sure, we hear great stories about hearty pioneers from Norway via Minnesota and Iowa, and others from Germany or the Ukraine, who plowed plenty of acres of soil that should never really have been plowed and fled the state during the Dust Bowl years.

But what about all those wranglers who drove cattle up here from Texas and stayed until their cattle froze to death, and then were replaced by Europeans who brought in different breeds and stayed longer, producing cattle herds that grazed the hills for as far as you could see in every direction? They are the really colorful ones.

What about those early rodeo stars that dominated the scene nationally the same time Roger Maris was whacking baseballs into the bleachers at Yankee Stadium?

What about those amazing Badlands?

A week ago, I met with someone from Colorado, a state that has some of the finest scenery in all of America, and he was amazed when he exited Interstate 94 at Medora, floated over the hill and saw the valley, the rodeo arena, the horse stable and the city of Medora below.

There is so much history in this state to uncover and put out there that it’s like an undiscovered gold mine and the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame is in the process of doing just that right now.

Stay tuned. You’re going to be very proud of your history.

Holten is the manager of The Drill and the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. He writes a weekly column for The Dickinson Press. Email him at