When the jury and judges awarded Elizabeth Fenn the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in History for her book, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, their citation described the book as “an engrossing, original narrative showing the Mandans, a Native American tribe in the Dakotas, as a people with a history.”
Strange phrase, “a people with a history.” Is there a people without a history? Or did the judges perhaps mean”a people with a recorded history”? If we set these questions aside, we encounter a further conundrum: Under the rules for the Pulitzer Prize in History, the award goes to “a distinguished and appropriately documented book upon the history of the United States.” But this is a book about the Mandan.
Notwithstanding questions about how the Pulitzer judges and juries understood what they were doing, Fenn’s remarkable and remarkably well-written book richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize. United States history cannot be understood apart from its entanglement with the Indigenous Peoples of the land. In “Encounters at the Heart of the World,” Mandan history illuminates American history, from at least the 17th century to the present.
The title—Encounters at the Heart of the World—reflects first of all Mandan self-understanding. Two Mandan creation stories—one of migration led by Good Furred Robe, the other of Lone Man and First Creator making land—each convey the position of the Mandan at the center of the world. The Mandan sense of centrality coincides with a geographic fact: the Mandan homeland occupies an area about 100 miles south of the geographic center of North America.
Peoples in their homeland often express this sentiment: we are at the center. A sense of centrality characterizes the phenomenon of being at home, in “ones place.” But the significance of the title—Encounters at the Heart of the World—goes beyond Mandan self-understanding and geography. Fenn documents the ways in which the Mandan People and their homelands were at the confluence of global events. The colonizers’ search for the Northwest Passage to India, the international trade in furs, the competition between France and Britain—and later, the U.S.—for control of the continent: the Mandan were at a crossroads of these world-changing processes.
The Mandan occupied a central economic and political position well before contact with Christian Europeans. They were go-betweens and partners for exchange of agricultural, hunting, and craft products among Native Nations on all sides.
After colonial contact, these relations of centrality exposed the Mandan to another form of traffic: the spread of the colonizers’ diseases. Smallpox especially, but also measles and whooping cough, broke out in waves of epidemics—repeated, virulent episodes of sickness and death. Outsider diseases devastated the Mandan. We speak of “decimation,” but that means killing one in ten; the mortality rate among the Mandan from the 1837 smallpox epidemic alone was 90%. All that were left was one in ten.
Fenn writes about Mandan spiritual life at the heart of their relations with one another, other peoples, and the world. She explains how Mandan ceremonial practices—principally the Okipa, a four-day ceremony to restore balance among the People—”evolved continuously, embracing new practices, spirits, and ceremonies as they emerged and abandoning others when they outlived their sustainability or usefulness.”
Fenn’s understanding of the fluidity of Mandan spiritual practices stands in contrast to what so many other observers fail to understand when they disparage Native traditions and ceremonies as not authentic (whatever that may mean) because they change. She comes to understand that “adaptability, ironically, created continuity. It allowed the Mandans to preserve their identity in the face of change, both before and after 1492.” Insisting on the present tense—because the Mandan are still here—Fenn writes, “It would … be disrespectful—even treacherous—to ignore the spiritual dimensions of Mandan life.”
Fenn’s work is rooted deeply in archival research—ninety-one pages of endnotes, nearly a quarter of the book—yet the writing is never dry and sparkles with personal insights. She ponders the basic question: “How can I understand the Mandans I am writing about when they inhabited a world so different from my own? Every historian faces this problem. We hardly talk about it, but is the crux of our work. Can I even begin to describe the Mandan universe?”
Her effort to understand and portray the Mandan universe pushes her to explore far beyond standard historical sources. She delves into archaeology, anthropology, geology, climatology, epidemiology, and even nutrition science. In each of these fields she does more than sample or dabble. Her endnotes compare and contrast competing views in these fields, and explain how she comes to her conclusions.
The result is a page-turner of a book. Arranged roughly chronologically within a topical framework—a kind of mosaic—the book opens with Mandan creation stories and daily life and proceeds to tell a complex narrative of contact, upheaval, reorientation, and survival. Though she does not use the term, her presentation is an example of what Asnishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance”: “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.”
“Encounters at the Heart of the World” is a portrayal of Mandan survivance, in the face of Christian missionaries, proto-capitalist traders, Old World plagues, colonial usurpers, new technologies, and American military force. In Fenn’s hands, the interwoven episodes of trade, war, and pestilence force the Mandan more than once to their last resources and yet fail to eradicate them as a People. Again and again, the Mandan suffer; but even as they reel with the various onslaughts, interventions, and devastations, they learn and improvise and carry forward their unique ways in new circumstances.
Fenn closes her powerful book as she opens it, with spiritual considerations. She recounts the revival of the Okipa ceremony at On-A-Slant Village in June 2011: “Lone Man made his entry, and all the creatures came back. From morning to midnight, we danced and we danced, pausing to smoke, pray, tell stories, and ponder the Mandan way through the world.”
“Encounters at the Heart of the World” springs from the heart of the author. Fenn’s energy and deep attachment to the Mandan as a living People inform the book from the first page to the last. She tells us in the first paragraph of the Preface that the Mandan “have lived here…for centuries.” Not once does she slip into the past tense so often used by writers about Indians. In the Acknowledgements section at the end, she refers to “my little sisters in the Goose Society” and gives thanks “for gifts at once physical, spiritual, and intellectual.”
The reader of Encounters at the Heart of the World encounters the heart of the Mandan, and through their iconic history as a people of the plains learns something of the history of the world.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.