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Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People Hardcover – March 11, 2014


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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Anyone who has seen the sensitive portraits of Mandan chiefs painted in the 1830s by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer will be captivated by Fenn’s exhaustively researched history of the tribe that once thrived on the upper Missouri River in present-day North Dakota—at one time the center of northern Plains commerce. Peaking at a population of 12,000 by 1500, and still a vital presence when Lewis and Clark visited in 1804, the Mandans were besieged by a daunting succession of challenges, including Norway rats that decimated their corn stores, two waves of smallpox, whooping cough, and cholera, reducing their numbers to 300 by 1838. Piecing together the journals of white visitors to this then unmapped land—from the French explorers Lahontan in 1688 and de la Vérendrye 50 years later, to Lewis and Clark, and later Prince Maximilian accompanied by Bodmer, the Swiss painter—and the annual reports to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Fenn weaves the historical fabric of this proud people, enhanced by archaeological and climate studies tracing their migrations, food sources, and intertribal conflicts. Simultaneously scholarly and highly readable, Fenn’s contribution enriches our understanding of not just Mandan history but also the history and culture of the pre-reservation northern Plains as well. --Deborah Donovan

Review

Encounters at the Heart of the World shows readers that there is much more to Mandan history than merely their suffering at the hands of Euroamerican epidemiology . . . Fenn relies upon deep archival research and a felicitous prose style to bring this forgotten world to life, starting with the Mandans' ancestral migrations from places south and east before their coalescence around the year 1400 in a fifty-mile stretch along the Missouri between the mouths of the Knife and Cannonball rivers. And what a rich and vibrant culture it was. Some of Fenn's best work concerns the material and social life of the Mandans . . . Perhaps the most compelling portion of the book is Fenn's recreation of Mandan cosmology and religious life, particularly the Okipa ceremony, an elaborate and intricate ritual performed every summer . . . The Mandan story is a reminder that 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 Fenn's account tells us also that cultures can persist and even recover in the wake of such awful devastation. (Andrew Graybill, The Daily Beast)

Elizabeth Fenn's Encounters at the Heart of the World is a book about those scraps--and about the author's personal encounters with them. It is a book of fragments or, as Ms. Fenn describes it, 'a mosaic . . . pieced together out of stones from many quarries.' . . . Somehow the fragments cohere into a more compelling portrait than a more linear brush, and a less personally visible artist, could have painted . . . Ms. Fenn is most compelling when she applies her detective skills to things scientific, medical and ecological . . . Ms. Fenn's mosaic brilliantly overcomes the shortcomings of her written and archaeological sources . . . Readers who follow her toward, but never quite into, the heart of the Mandans' world will be richer for the journey. (Daniel K. Richter, The Wall Street Journal)

Relying on fragmentary documentary records, discoveries by archaeologists, imaginative detective work, evidence uncovered by anthropologists, geologists, climatologists and nutritional scientists, plus paintings and drawings by frontier artists George Catlin, Karl Bodmer and others, Fenn pieces together a rich and remarkably detailed history of this nearly forgotten tribe . . . The product of her work is this wonderfully interesting book that should finally help the Mandans claim their rightful place in history. (Steve Raymond, The Seattle Times)

Anyone who has seen the sensitive portraits of Mandan chiefs painted in the 1830s by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer will be captivated by Fenn's exhaustively researched history of the tribe that once thrived on the upper Missouri River in present-day North Dakota--at one time the center of northern Plains commerce. Peaking at a population of 12,000 by 1500, and still a vital presence when Lewis and Clark visited in 1804, the Mandans were besieged by a 'daunting succession of challenges,' including Norway rats that decimated their corn stores, two waves of smallpox, whooping cough, and cholera, reducing their numbers to 300 by 1838. Piecing together the journals of white visitors to this then unmapped land--from the French explorers Lahontan in 1688 and de la Vérendrye 50 years later, to Lewis and Clark, and later Prince Maximilian accompanied by Bodmer, the Swiss painter--and the annual reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Fenn weaves the historical fabric of this proud people, enhanced by archaeological and climate studies tracing their migrations, food sources, and intertribal conflicts. Simultaneously scholarly and highly readable, Fenn's contribution enriches our understanding of not just Mandan history, but the history and culture of the prereservation northern Plains as well. (Deborah Donovan, Booklist (starred review))

Historians thought this book could not be written--a history of a world far from document producing Europeans. Elizabeth A. Fenn has done it, and she has made it a page-turner. Her breathtaking accomplishment will make us see American history in an entirely new way. (Kathleen DuVal, University of North Carolina; author of The Native Ground)

In this innovative and illuminating book, Elizabeth A. Fenn reorients early American history toward the geographic center of the continent. There, long before the arrival of colonists on the Atlantic coast, the Mandan people built one of the most important and enduring trading centers in America. Using tools from archaeology, anthropology, and epidemiology, Fenn reconstructs their remarkable story and recounts it in absorbing and transparent prose. (Claudio Saunt, University of Georgia; author of West of the Revolution)

We have been conditioned to view early American history from coastal places inward, but what if we did the opposite and viewed developments from the deep interior outward? Elizabeth A. Fenn's engrossing new book does just that--and to stunning effect. The seemingly isolated Mandan villages in the center of North America emerge as pivotal places where many life-altering forces converged--from European trade and epidemics to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Mandan history of struggle and resilience is filled with drama. (Pekka Hämäläinen, University of California, Santa Barbara; author of The Comanche Empire)

By recovering the history of a set of native villages at the very heart of our continent, Elizabeth A. Fenn brilliantly shows how we can rethink the past. Working from the native center rather than the colonial and coastal periphery, Fenn deftly reveals the haunting interplay of nature, humanity, loss, survival, and memory in the lives of the Mandans and their neighbors, who both shared and violently contested a demanding yet beautiful land. (Alan Taylor, University of California, Davis; author of American Colonies)

For almost three centuries, the Mandans' society of farmers and traders dominated one of North America's greatest networks of exchange, hosting and bartering with the French, English, and Spanish; with the Hidatsas, Arikaras, Assiniboines, and Lakota Sioux; and, later, with the hustlers, soldiers, hunters, and artists of the new United States. The Mandan saga is, like all human stories, replete with joy and tragedy, triumph and despair. Drawing on a staggering range of sources, Elizabeth A. Fenn has recovered it and brought this very American story to life. (Charles C. Mann, author of 1491 and 1493)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang (March 11, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809042398
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809042395
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,790 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By K. Brandner on May 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The Mandan, a semi-sedentary tribe in modern North Dakota, are ethnologically a well studied group, but there are only a few historical works about this important tribe, so Elizabeth A. Fenn's book is at the moment the only study which offers an overview of several centuries of Mandan history, from pre-columbian times till the mid 19th century. In contrast to many other ethnohistorical studies of certain Plains groups, Fenn has tried to write a most likely scenario of pre-contact times, piecing together the sparse informations of the recent archaeological finds. Unfortunately, this includes a lot of speculation.
On safer ground, especially the period after the mid 18th century, when accounts of travellers, explorers and traders offer at least some insights into Mandan society and history, the author composed a convincing picture of the life in the Mandan villages, which were one of the most important centers of commerce in the whole Plains regions. This is the best part of the book, showing how events in far away places shaped and influenced the life of these Native Americans on the Upper Missouri. Well researched, these chapters describe meticulously many social and economical aspects of Mandan culture, as well as important historical processes during this turbulent period. Quite unusually, Elizabeth Fenn intersperses throughout the whole book short chapters, in which she describes her own experiences during visits to the historical locations. While these chapters offer few if any scientific informations, they show the reader some glimpses of the author's motivations, which is mucho simpatico. The climax of the book is the account of the tribes nearly demise during the epidemic of 1837/38.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Rob Pudim on April 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Mandan helped Lewis and Clark and Sakajawea joined them there. I have read a number of books on the Native Americans and this is the first on a tribe of farmers and traders. It is a refreshing change from reading about fighters and raiders. The scholarship is superb and it is obvious Elizabeth Fenn spent time there. Of course, it is sad, too, because disease acquired from the whites who they helped so much pretty much wiped them out. For anyone interested in Native American culture this is a book they should have on their library shelf.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Janet Red Feather on October 23, 2014
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Elizabeth Fenn is a brilliant and talented writer. She makes history come alive. She has respect for and spiritual insight into the lives of the Nueta, the Mandan. Every sentence is lovingly crafted. What a joy to read a work where every phrase offers a unique image and not a single word is wasted. Other than Bowers' book, Professor Fenn's seminal work is the definitive contemporary treatise on the history and life ways of the Mandan people. You will love this book!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Sweetpea2 on June 1, 2014
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The author has pulled together many sources of information on the Mandan / Hidatsa tribe.. She has succinctly put them together in a readable and informative book. I enjoyed the book immensely because there is very little out there about this particular tribe.
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Format: Kindle Edition
This Pulitzer Prize winning book is a vivid tale of the Mandan people but also the others who lived on the northern plains. The story is told with depth and breadth. I should have been more careful, it was difficult to keep the three main tribes straight. The growing encounters with the White man is worth the retelling and our remembering.
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By Theresa Sull on May 23, 2015
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Elizabeth Fenn's scholarly history of the Mandan people illuminates forgotten American history.
Her writing style is clear and concise, pulling readers through a fascinating and complex tale.
'Encounters at the Heart of the World' will change history courses in every American university.
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I find the book fascinating. Ms Fenn has a marvelous ability to express herself with simple words that we all know but seldom use. She has made this story interesting with her words. I would like to read other books she has written
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