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  • Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn
  • Tracy Potter (bio)

Mandan nation, Native Americans, Sheheke, Little Crow, Plains Indians

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. By Elizabeth A. Fenn. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2014. Pp. xv, 480. Cloth, $35.00.)

It was way past due. A readable history of the fascinating Mandan nation has long been needed, and now it exists. Fifty pages in I emailed the author and told her she had made me superfluous. “You know everything I know,” I exaggerated slightly, “and you express it better.”

Let me admit a bias. The Mandan fascinate me. I once started to write their history, an effort diverted by the civil chief of the village of Mitutanka. I meant to use Chief Sheheke-shote, the White Coyote, only as a literary device, but he took over the story and demanded his biography be completed before the bicentennial of his intersection with Lewis and Clark and the young United States in 1804.

A further bias is that as a native North Dakotan, born and of long residence just a pleasant bike ride from the confluence of the Heart and Missouri rivers, I needed little convincing from Professor Fenn that this region is the heart of the world. Encounters at the Heart of the World demonstrates that it was that not only for the Mandan but also for the [End Page 504] numerous Indian nations who relied on the certainty that the Mandan always had corn they were willing to trade. For centuries, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Cree, even Dakota, Lakota, and more could be assured of hospitality and a dynamic marketplace in the fortified cities of the Mandan.

Good historians need to be good researchers or good writers. Great historians are both. Elizabeth Fenn showed both qualities in Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82 (New York, 2002), part of which dealt with the 1781 smallpox epidemic that depopulated North America from Mexico City to Hudson Bay and the Pacific Northwest. Her detective work traced the spread of the disease through the death records of Spanish missions into Texas, where informed speculation allows Fenn to see the virus invade Comanche bands. An infected horseman can cover a lot of ground in the two weeks before symptoms appear. The conclusion is easy to follow—disease ran to the Shoshone Rendezvous on the Front Range into the Rockies and beyond; while a more easterly dispersal followed the Mississippi to the Missouri tribes and into Canada with the Assiniboine and Cree. Among the Mandan mortality rates may have reached 80 percent.

Meticulous research is also evident in Encounters. Fenn collates her research well and delivers interesting stories. She chose a bold and unusual storytelling style, presenting Mandan history and culture in digestible, delicious snippets without slavish regard to chronology or historical taxonomy. It turns out to be constantly engaging.

The Mandan have not been entirely overlooked. From Pierre Gaultier, Sieur de la Verendrye in 1738, through David Thompson, William Clark, and Alexander Henry, to George Catlin and Prince Maximilian of Wied, explorers wrote about the Mandan in the first century after contact. Anthropologist Alfred Bowers spent years among the Mandan and Hidatsa, and produced a dissertation and two books on their social and ceremonial organization. The dean of Middle Missouri archeology, W. Raymond Wood, has written widely and well on the Mandan. Without those contributions, Fenn would not have had enough to say to justify the length of this book. Without her, though, their contributions would not be woven into such a delightfully readable quilt.

A broad history lays down many markers open to debate and criticism. Most of Fenn’s markers are thoroughly analyzed from several perspectives. One perspective unusual for a social scientist is Fenn’s nimble use of hard science. From smallpox to pellagra to Norway rats, she [End Page 505] doesn’t jump to conclusions, but carefully explains the workings of the various elements and how each affected the Mandan. Norway rats, as a new thing in their environment, were initially celebrated for dominating the constantly...


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pp. 504-507
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