Walnut Grove man has collected Native American artifacts, studied its culture for most of his life
By Scott Thoma
With over 300 arrowheads and countless buffalo teeth in his collection, it’s safe to say Dan Peterson of Walnut Grove is a human artifact detector.
“I don’t always find a lot of arrowheads when I go out looking for them, but my goal is to find at least one each time I look for them,” said the personable Peterson. “I’ve found as many as nine in one outing.”
That’s not to say Peterson is just plain lucky. He has become an aficionado of Native American history through vast research and by talking to those with knowledge of their culture.
“I first got interested in Native American culture when I was in elementary school,” said Peterson. “And as I got older, I read a lot about their culture.”
His interest in collecting arrowheads and other Native American artifacts developed while he was a camp counselor in the early 1990s.
“One of the summers that I was a counselor, we had the kids look for arrowheads as one of their activities,” Peterson said. “One of the kids found a perfect arrowhead, and that was kind of what got me really interested.”
But it’s not as easy as Peterson’s vast collection makes it look. He delves into history books to determine the areas where the various tribes may have camped before he begins his searches. And over time, he has been able to figure out places to look without using any reference material.
“Most of the arrowheads are found on shores of lakes,” he said. “I have found some items on land, but it’s a lot more difficult to find them. I still get an adrenaline rush when I find one.”
Peterson offers that not all lakes will have arrowheads on the shore.
“A lot of the lakes around here now have been man-made,” he said. “That’s why you have to do some research before you look for arrowheads.”
Peterson, a local historian, doesn’t bring a big arsenal with him when he goes on one of his artifact excursions; usually to Lake Shetek, Lake Sarah or Bloody Lake, all located in the Slayton/Tracy area in the southwestern part of the state.
“I take a three-pronged garden rake, a walking stick and knee pads,” he said. “That’s about it. The walking stick is if I have to walk through thick brush that is slapping me in the face, or if I come across some type of critter.”
He recently purchased a kayak for easier maneuvering if he wants to get to certain spots on a lake.
“I used to walk through shallow water to get to some of my favorite spots to look for arrowheads,” he explained. “It’s easier to get to some of these places now with a kayak.”
Peterson focuses on shorelines when searching for artifacts and arrowheads because it’s the easiest place to look.
“Most (arrowheads) can be found washed up on the surface,” he said. “There is very little digging; more just sorting through stones and leaves and things. Arrowheads wash up much like broken glass. Where I find glass washed up along with buffalo teeth I know I’m probably in a good spot. After a good rain or after a strong wind can be good for finding arrowheads.”
Besides arrowheads and buffalo teeth, Peterson has found “tons” of shards of pottery, as well as fossils, awls, various Native American tools, and even a spear point. He has 10 dresser drawers filled with shards and broken arrowheads or shards of pottery he has found over the years.
“Yes, I have 10,” he laughed, when asked to repeat the number of filled drawers. “I’ve found a lot of stuff.”
The items he has found are not all necessarily from the Dakota tribes that were prevalent in and around the Lake Shetek area where there was a historic bloody battle with settlers during the Dakota Uprising of 1862.
“I’ve found four prehistoric shark teeth,” Peterson said, noting that oceans once covered this area. “I had them identified to make sure.”
Peterson’s impressive arrowhead collection includes a myriad of styles and types. He has reference books to help him identify the time period, types of stones, and what tribes they likely belonged to.
“I have some arrowheads that are still sharp,” he said. “The ones that are sharp are made of obsidian.”
Native American Indian arrowheads were made of hard stones that could flake easily. These hard stones were sharpened into projectile points. To make useful projectile points like arrowheads or spear tips, the piece of obsidian was struck with a hammerstone to remove large sharp flakes.
Peterson said hunting for arrowheads is a lot like fishing in that news travels fast when a spot is productive.
“Fishermen never tell where they catch fish,” he said. “And we don’t like to tell where we are finding arrowheads.”