Plan Your Visit | About Our Foundation | Educational Info | Membership
Request More Info | Donations | Centennial Farms | Discover Lewis & Clark
Loading
News
North Dakota's Mandan Indians are Pulitzer material

Posted on 7/17/2015

By Lauren Donovan, The Bismarck Tribune

A historian turned the looking glass around to create a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about North Dakota's Mandan Indians.

Elizabeth Fenn tells their long and rich story from the inside looking out, rather than from the outside looking in - a tribal point of view.

The Pulitzer committee found "Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People," both engrossing and original and in April awarded Fenn $10,000 and the 2015 History citation giving her, she says, "an over-the-top kind of feeling."

Fenn will be in North Dakota and South Dakota July 31 through Aug. 3, making stops at Jamestown, Washburn, Bismarck, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Fargo to talk about her book and to turn a learning ear to whomever she meets along the way.

One of those people will be old friend Marilyn Hudson, keeper of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara history at the tribal museum on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Hudson said Fenn's book is a substantial contribution to the Mandan story and she wants Fenn to sign her personal copy.

"One of the big questions that people ask today is whether it's an accurate portrayal. I think it does that very well," Hudson said.

Besides countless trips to North Dakota, Fenn relied on new discoveries in paleo climatology, archaeology, anthropology, geology and nutritional science to write her narrative.

"They were fabulous farmers and their productivity may have exceeded that of European peasants," she said. "Their density was higher than a European market town at the time."

Fenn said while the award is personally and academically satisfying, it throws a wider glow over a place she's grown to love and a people she admires.

"This is a marvelous moment for North Dakota and for the Mandan Indians, who are finally getting the recognition they deserve in American history. The Mandan story should be part of the American canon," she said.

The upcoming book tour is sponsored by the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation and its executive director, David Borlaug, said the significance of a Pulitzer for a book on Mandan history can't be overstated.

"It says so much about the importance of the Plains Indian people. There have been other books, but this, in a really popular way, is bringing the history of the Mandan into the mainstream," Borlaug said.

Fenn is a history professor and department chairman at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her interest in the Mandan story grew out of a previous book she had written, "Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82," which details the effect of the disease on the American Revolution and the Eastern Seaboard.

Her studies followed the epidemic's spread out into the plains that the Mandan called home. Prior to that, Fenn said she had historic knowledge of the Mandan through accounts of Lewis and Clark's time with them but not much more.

Some 12 years of work changed that immensely.

"I really had no sense of them. I was blown away by the size of the villages, the extent of their commerce and their social traditions. They were a huge population of thousands of people out there in the middle of the continent," she said. "I thought, what if I took a different approach and try to tell the story from the center of their world?"

Her account, according to Fenn, begins with their creation story in sacred time and picks up in historic time at around 1,000 A.D. It continues through their migration up the Missouri River to the Heart River region, the Knife River region, and finally, to their last stand at Like-a-Fishhook Village, where smallpox survivors gathered with the Hidatsa and Arikara from about 1845 until moving onto allotments starting around 1890.

"That was the last earthlodge village on the upper Missouri. It's quite poignant," Fenn said.

Fenn said her expertise as a historian ends at about 1800 and she "freaks out and gets a panic attack" at periods much later than that. In other words, a sequel won't be penned by her.

"If there's a volume two, somebody else needs to write that story of resilience and survival. I'll leave that to somebody else," she said.


A Pulitzer Prize book tour, featuring Elizabeth Fenn, author of "Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People," will include four stops in North Dakota and one in South Dakota:

---- Jamestown Art Center - 5 p.m., July 31
---- Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn - 10 a.m., Aug. 1 (Free admission until noon. Presentation in the Bergeson Gallery, featuring a display of Karl Bodmer's prints from his time with the Mandan Indians in 1830s.)
---- Bismarck Public Library - 2 p.m., Aug. 1 (Also featuring Mandan traditional knowledge keepers Amy Mossett and Wendi Wells.)
---- Zandbroz Variety, Sioux Falls, S.D. - 2 p.m., Aug. 2.
---- Zandbroz Variety, Fargo, - 7 p.m., Aug. 3




FacebookTwitterYoutube
Home