Tributes by Dr. Paul Gardner and Dr. Mark Mitchell
Compiled with the generous assistance of Dr. Mark Mitchell
The archaeological community was saddened to hear of the passing of esteemed Plains archaeologist Fern Swenson. Fern was born on December 5, 1954 in Starbuck, MN and passed on April 15 in Cedar Rapids, IA. Fern attended Glenwood High School where she graduated in 1972. She continued her education at St. Cloud State University and the University of Oklahoma where she graduated with a master’s degree in Archaeology. Fern’s love of Native American history and culture brought her to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks for her first work assignment. In 1994 she found her home as Chief Archaeologist for the State of North Dakota, where she stayed for 35 years. Fern was the Director of the North Dakota Archaeology & Historic Preservation Department at the time of her passing.
Over Fern’s long career she was a leading expert on the ceramics and archaeology of the Heart Region (the confluence of the Heart and Missouri Rivers) in North Dakota and was the author of dozens of technical reports, journal articles, book chapters, conference papers and posters. Most recently, she co-authored the book Traces: Early Peoples of North Dakota, a thoroughly illustrated and up-to-date popular account of the state’s archaeology. In addition to scholarly work, Fern has been a strong advocate of public outreach and education and was strongly supportive of both undergraduate and graduate level researchers. In addition, she worked to forge strong and collaborative relationships between archaeologists and Native American communities in the state. Fern was also a leading supporter of the Plains Anthropological Society as a member of the Board of Directors (2006-2008) and lead host of the Plains Anthropological Conference (1998, 2010, and 2017). When the North Dakota Heritage Center expanded in 2014, Fern took a lead role in the creation and installation of new and engaging exhibits for the center. At the time of her passing, she had been nominated for the Plains Anthropological Society’s Distinguished Service Award.
Fern was equally active in the preservation of archaeological sites with one of her greatest achievements being the stabilization of Double Ditch Village, one of the largest and best-preserved Plains Village settlements in the region. When her careful stewardship efforts revealed that bank erosion threatened a significant portion of the settlement, she worked tirelessly—and overcame numerous obstacles and setbacks—to obtain the substantial funding and specialized technical expertise needed to successfully stabilize the site. Without her determination, the discipline—as well as descendant communities—may well have lost one of the most important remaining Plains Village settlements.
Compiled by Emeritus Midwestern Regional Director-Dr. Paul Gardner
I had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Fern for nearly 20 years. Our first interaction was when she called me concerning the Biesterfield archaeological site, a National Register site excavated in the 1930s by pioneering archaeologist W.D. Strong. The site’s owner had died and his heirs were auctioning his land. Commonly in such situations, The Archaeological Conservancy (TAC) is alerted to the auction at the last minute and is expected to just show up with a big bag of money to make things right. Fern, however, did things differently. When she reached out to me, she not had not only assembled all the literature on the site to send me to demonstrate its value as a preserve, but she had negotiated with the heirs to convince them to place the archaeological site on a separate 40-acre parcel to help contain TAC’s costs. With ground laid so well, TAC was able to prevail at auction and create our first North Dakota preserve.
Following this success, TAC added North Dakota to the responsibilities of the Midwest Director and dispatched me to see if other sites could be acquired. Fern responded by greeting me with a two-page annotated list of potential prospects that we’re still working fruitfully. When I raised the subject of perhaps developing a Conservancy tour of North Dakota archaeological sites, Fern led me on an expedition to visit a mix of prehistoric and historic period sites she thought would be interesting to the public. These sites today form the basis of our Northern Plains Tour. Of all the state historic preservation officials I worked with during my Conservancy career, Fern was the only one I thought truly understood and properly valued the work of The Conservancy. Rather than viewing me as an interloper or a time-consuming nuisance, Fern always treated me as an important partner whose preservation work she was happy to assist. She truly carried out her North Dakota heritage work as a labor of love, and joining her in it was a pleasure. She won’t be easily replaced, and all who knew her will miss her.
Read Fern’s obituary here.