22 million people can’t be wrong. That’s how many people visit North Dakota each year, and they probably don’t go just to see the fields of spring wheat and sunflowers, the most produced in any U.S. state. Instead, the 22 million tourists travel here for natural beauty, national parks, historical sites and Native American culture that make it a unique destination for all, and its prairie churches—diverse in both architecture and denomination—offer something special for faith groups.
Options for Faith Travelers
Faith groups will no doubt be interested in visiting North Dakota’s prairie churches, a collection of historical churches, each with its own unique story linked to the history of the state. For example, when settlers from Iceland crossed into North Dakota from Canada, one of the first structures they built was their church, the Hallson Icelandic Church in Cavalier, just south of the Canadian border. Also close to the border in Souris is the Swedish Zion Lutheran Church, a sturdy structure of granite built in 1903 by immigrants from Sweden who settled in the area thanks to the Homestead Act. And three Catholic prairie churches are the Basilica of St. James in Jamestown, Saints Peter and Paul Church in Strasburg, and St. Mary’s in Richardton.
St. Mary’s Church also includes Assumption Abbey, home to 30 monks who lead tours of the monastery, the surrounding gardens and the church. Many groups visit each year to see the unique Bavarian Romanesque architecture of the church, its 50 stunning stained-glass windows, and the remarkable collection of religious art and sculptures. In addition to a wine cellar, a pottery studio and a gift shop, the abbey offers the unique experience of participating in a private retreat or staying overnight at the monastery.
Another option on the prairie church circuit is the James River Church and Lutheran Cemetery, perched on a hilltop alongside a remote two-lane highway 16 miles from Carrington. Founded in 1919 and built on land donated by Norwegian settler Sigvart Holland, this simple white clapboard church has been well-maintained by area residents since its closure in 1969.
Of the prairie churches Deanne Cunningham of the North Dakota Tourism Division says, “These churches were built by the many different people who migrated to North Dakota to start a homestead and continue their faith. Many churches today throughout the state will work with faith groups that want to volunteer their time to help with service projects in these communities.”
Another destination of interest for faith groups is North Dakota’s International Peace Garden, a botanical garden visited by more than 100,000 people each year. The garden lies adjacent to the U.S.-Canadian border crossing just south of Boissevain, Manitoba.
Built in 1932 to honor the peace between the two countries, the garden has grown to represent peace among all people and nations. The 2,300 acres include bike paths, campgrounds, hiking trails and lakes, as well as a 9/11 Memorial and a Peace Chapel. The memorial includes a display of mangled beams from one of the World Trade Center buildings destroyed on September 11, 2001, by a hijacked passenger plane.
Like the garden, the Peace Chapel straddles the international boundary between the U.S. and Canada, symbolizing the peace between the two nations. It includes inscriptions on the interior walls of peace-related quotes by famous statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin and John F. Kennedy. The chapel is available for formal events and is also open most days for visitors to sit and “contemplate a world at peace."
Nature and Natives
In addition to faith options, North Dakota’s natural beauty and Native American culture offer a variety of unique travel options to satisfy nature enthusiasts as well as history buffs.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is where the Great Plains meet the Badlands, an arid region with rock formations and canyons carved by rivers long dried. The park encompasses the Little Missouri River and is home to bison, elk, prairie dogs and wild horses. “You can stand on a Painted Canyon overlook at this park and be mesmerized by the colors of the landscape before you,” says Cunningham.
Visitors can hike trails throughout the park, camp, enjoy spectacular views of wildlife and landscapes from various overlooks, and visit the Maltese Cross Cabin, where President Roosevelt once lived. For those who prefer to tour by car, the Scenic Loop Drive winds past several overlooks and trails.
Native American Culture
An important part of North Dakota history is told by the 30,000 Native Americans living there. Even the state’s name has origins with the Native Americans, as “Dakota” means “friend” in the Lakota language.
Visitors will find several options related to the Native people. At the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum they’ll hear stories, learn about the Lakota language, see artwork and learn about legends such as Sitting Bull, Sheheke-Shote and Sakakawea and the important role each played in shaping U.S. history (see below). Visit Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site to see the Hidatsa village, where explorers Lewis and Clark first met Sakakawea during their journey to the West.
Groups can experience Native American life in an authentic way at On-A-Slant Mandan Indian Village at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. “At this park you can schedule a tour with a docent to receive the best information about each earthlodge, the typical dwelling of native people of the Great Plains,” explains Cunningham. “You can also schedule visits through the tribal tourism office to have a tour that might include a garden experience, music and traditional storytelling.”
North Dakota's famous Native Americans
Sheheke-Shote was invited to Washington, D.C., by Lewis and Clark to meet President Thomas Jefferson after he requested a meeting with a representative of the indigenous people.
Sitting Bull led an attack on the newly built Fort Rice in 1865. His warrior skills and the respect he earned as a leader of his people led him to become chief of the Lakota nation in 1868. He also won the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which he led Sioux and Cheyenne warriors against Gen. George Custer and his men.
Sakakawea* and her husband, Charbonneau, served as interpreters for Lewis and Clark on their journey west in 1804. Because Sakakawea was originally from a West Coast tribe, she provided crucial information about Indian ways that allowed the explorers to be successful.
*Her name is spelled differently in other areas of the country, with “Sacagawea” being the most common spelling. However, “Sakakawea” is the official spelling used in North Dakota.
Top photo: Riverbend at sunset
Photo by North Dakota Tourism