National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Paul Bergren

A man is holding a microphone toward a man sitting in a wheelchair, his wife standing behind him. In the foreground is a man standing next to a handmade dog sled.

Paul and Darlene Bergren (center) share the story of their handcrafted dogsleds with the audience during the 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellowships concert in Washington, DC. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Washington, DC—It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of dog sled and snowshoe designer and builder Paul Bergren. Paul, along with his late wife Darlene who passed away in 2017, were recipients of a 2012 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. The couple ran a sled-making business in Minot, North Dakota, and Paul’s sleds were widely respected for their craftsmanship and used by champion racers across the globe.

Paul, from Bersford, South Dakota, met Darlene while stationed with the Air Force in her hometown of Minot, North Dakota. The two married in 1964 and made their home and business in Minot. They raised five children, and Paul frequently made snowshoes to outfit his family on trapping expeditions. Paul's interest in dogsleds began when one of his children asked for a snowmobile to use while trapping. Instead, the family got a dog, and Paul made a sled. In a 2012 interview with the NEA about their National Heritage Fellowship award, Paul recalls the first sled he built, “Being out on the plains there aren't many good trees for lumber, so I did a lot of looking for material to make the runners out of. I did find finally some pieces of oak over in the eastern part of the state in a sawmill and brought them home. The rest of the sled was made out of broken hockey sticks. We tied them together with rawhide, and it was crude but it was very tough and it stayed together.”

Soon enough the entire family was hooked on dog-sled racing. As they attended more and more races, Paul's interest in sled design grew. He began building sleds full-time. His sleds developed into handmade steamed and bent white ash that was laminated for durability and lightness and stitched with rawhide in an aesthetically pleasing pattern. The Bergrens shared their craft with countless others through apprenticeship programs and school residencies, working with groups such as the North Dakota Council on the Arts and the North Dakota School for the Deaf. Additionally, they worked with Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups and made presentations at craft festivals and workshops throughout the northern United States. 

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