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Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People Paperback – March 17, 2015
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*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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“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
“Following the Mandan people from their precolonial independence through their adaptation and survival against fierce odds, Elizabeth A. Fenn presents new dimensions of American life all the way from the fifteenth century to our own time. Her book offers a spectacular demonstration of how much is needed to understand just one place and one people, and how that understanding can then illuminate a very large world. Any reader with an interest in colonial, western, and Native American history will gain from reading Encounters at the Heart of the World.” ―Edward Countryman, Southern Methodist University; author of Enjoy the Same Liberty
“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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The Mandan raised a sufficient amount of corn, tobacco, and vegetable for trade. Migratory Plains tribes visited Mandan villages to exchange buffalo meat and hide for agriculture products the Mandan raised. Fenn argues that this trade enabled the tribes to maintain a balanced diet. The Mandan also interacted and traded with the French, British, Americans, and to a very limited degree the Spanish.
Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of Mandan life, housing, raising crops, peace and warfare, introduction of horses, disease etc. within each chapter events are presented in chronological order constructing a full view perspective of their lifestyle, and events that impacted the tribe.
Life changed for the Mandan when they were first stricken by smallpox in 1791. The Mandan comprised approximately 13 clans after the plague there were seven. An outbreak of smallpox in 1837 decimated the tribe closing the book.
My issue with this book is first Fenn injects her own personal narrative in the early chapters which has no pertinence to her topic. It would have been more appropriate to include these musings in the introduction. Unfortunately there is little historical record to draw from causing the content to be somewhat dry, but also wanting me to know more.
Encounters at the Heart of the World needs to be applauded for its contribution for a history that is seldom discussed.
The style is a little unusual. Short sections have titles and dates, such as "St. Louis, Spanish Louisiana, 1793." these are mostly but not all sequential, and form a kind of mosaic rather than a year to year history, because there isn't enough documentation to cover every year and every event. Some points are very well documented, such as when the Lewis & Clark expedition stopped at the Mandan villages, or when artists such as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin were in the villages.
There's a good deal of information about the Mandan's life cycle and culture, but also on how this people participated in trade--surprisingly large and surprisingly important (largely but much more than Mandan corn for other tribe's meat and crafts). There's also a lot about how they survived catastrophes, such as two smallpox epidemics, measles, whooping cough and other diseases deadly to Indian peoples. One bit of history I was unfamiliar with was the spread of the rat to the villages, apparently from early steamboats on the Missouri, and this was a huge factor in their history, because the rats soon were so numerous as to destroy Mandan village corn stores, their traditional method of storing was helpless to prevent rat destruction of the grain. This not only wiped out their major trade items but also stores against drought and famine resulted. The expansion of Sioux also placed great pressure on the Mandan, who declined from some thousands to a few hundreds and were nearly extincted as a people.
A vital part of the history is the network of trade, which came to include traders from the Hudson's Bay Company from the north and traders coming upriver from St. Louis (originally traders, but also trappers and explorers), as well as the earlier era of French, British and Spanish presence.