Elizabeth A. Fenn

Encounters at the Heart of the World

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Encounters at the Heart of the World Summary

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Historian Elizabeth A. Fenn won the Pulitzer Prize in History for her 2014 book, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. This nonfiction book weaves together Fenn’s research into fragmented archives and primary sources; recent archeological discoveries; information gleaned by anthropologists, geologists, climatologists, epidemiologists, and nutritional scientists; evidence gathered from paintings and drawings by frontier artists such as George Catlin and Karl Bodmer; as well as her own detective work – creating a rich and detailed history of a nearly forgotten Native American tribe that flourished in the plains along the upper Missouri River before being almost entirely wiped out.

Fenn narrates the history of the Mandan Indians chronologically, explaining their first coalescing in the area, describing their cultural and economic heyday, and then examining one by one the causes of their dwindling numbers.

The ancestors of the people who would eventually be known as the Mandans migrated to the fifty-mile stretch along the Missouri River between the mouths of the Knife and Cannonball rivers around the year 1400 AD. In the next hundred years, this people would reach the pinnacle of their dominance over the area, as their numbers grew to around twelve thousand by the year 1500. They thrived on the northern plains, becoming known for their variedly rich and vibrant culture, as well as their diverse and far-reaching trade in agricultural and craft goods. At the heart of the Mandans’ economic success was corn, which they farmed with such frequent surpluses that it became the backbone of their trade economy. Two particularly large settlements, the busy towns of Ruptare and Mih-tutta-hang-kusch, became “the center of the northern plains universe…bustling with commerce and diplomacy” as nearby tribes visited to bargain for resources. Fenn also describes the Mandans’ social and spiritual life, in particular, dwelling on the Okipa ceremony, an elaborate and intricate ritual dance performed every summer.

Mandan society and its population centers were described as the heart of the plains by French explorers Lahontan in 1688 and de la Vérendrye in 1738, and were still thriving when Lewis and Clark, who spent the winter, met their guide Sacagawea there in 1804-1805. However, due largely to their increased contact with Europeans, a series of environmental, epidemiological, and anthropological challenges hit this society, with such devastating effect that by 1838, there were only around 300 Mandan people left.

The first of these waves of change and challenge was the horse, which initially seemed like a purely beneficial technology. Horse riding made the Mandans better hunters, and, more importantly, it allowed them to spread their trade network very far very quickly. As shown by the Mexican-style saddles and bridles bartered by Mandan people, horses allowed this tribe to make increasingly longer- and longer-distance contacts as far away as Mexico. But this seemingly positive development brought with it an unforeseen danger: the quick spread of diseases, such as smallpox, whooping cough, and cholera, which traveled back from Mexico in waves to Mandan settlements where “population density made transmission highly likely.”

The next challenge was the result of Norway rats, an invasive species that decimated corn and maize stores in a way that local mouse types could not. In combination with unpredictable waves of disease, the malnutrition caused by sudden food insecurity added to the rates of illness and death.

During all of this, however, Fenn makes it clear that Mandan people never lost their sense of themselves as a people with distinctive traditions: “The Mandan’s material world had unraveled, but their history and identity remained.” The ceremonial practice of the Okipa remained at the heart of their spiritual practice as a “steadying force” that could adapt and change based on the needs of the tribe. Even when the residents of both Ruptare and Mih-tutta-hang-kusch were forced to flee these places because of disease and tribal warfare, they made sure to keep as many aspects of their culture as alive as possible.

Still, in the end, what remained of the Mandan people joined with the similarly destroyed Hidatsas and Arikaras tribes, only to be forced out of this enmeshed partnership by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1880s, when the U.S. government was doing its best to kill off this tribe’s unique identity by banning them from performing the Okipa.

Fenn’s historical account ends here, leaving a tantalizing question that isn’t fully answered. We see how even the “most flourishing societies can be brought low, in virtually an instant, by the unpredictable workings of the natural world (to say nothing of human foes),” but we never learn what the ongoing legacy of the Mandan people is in the present day. Fenn introduces Cedric Red Feather, a “Mandan turtle priest” and “Okipa Maker,” whom she interacted with in 2011, so it does seem as though at least some aspects of the Mandans’ culture survive – but Fenn doesn’t explain whether the U.S. government recognizes this people or how many of them are left.