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In the heart of America an Indian nation called the Mandan formed a fascinating civilization that was wrecked by European invasion. A new book tells their story like never before. On October 20,the Corps of Discovery camped just below the point where the Heart River empties into the Missouri, in present-day central North Dakota. Lewis and Clark were only a few months into their journey, and each day brought new wonders for the three-dozen men charged with exploring the lands acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase.
For William Clark, writing in his journal, the memorable sights of that autumn day in consisted mainly of animal migrations.
These two historical events—smallpox epidemics and the expedition of Lewis and Clark—are all that most Americans scholars among them know about these people of the Upper Missouri, if they have heard of them at all. In her dazzling and compulsively readable new book, historian Elizabeth Fenn narrates the sweep of the Mandan past, focusing especially on the period fromwhen another smallpox epidemic nearly extinguished them altogether. It is apt that Fenn should turn her considerable talents to the Mandans, given that her first book, Pox Americanais a continental history of the smallpox epidemic ofwhich erupted in Mexico City and barreled northward, killing more thanpeople and immiserating untold others.
But 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. After all, it was their very success as a densely settled people at the center of a vast commercial nexus on the Missouri River that placed them time and again in the crosshairs of such diseases, to say nothing of their native enemies, who alternately traded with and raided them.
And what a rich and vibrant culture it was. Take, for instance, their distinctive earth lodges, stout post-and-beam structures built atop cache pits stuffed with corn, for which they became known and valued until this resource was destroyed by another pest introduced by Euroamericans: the Norway rat.
Although to the newcomers these clustered houses looked hastily and poorly arranged, with no right-angled streets or alleys, the irregular de was both deliberate and ingenious, as it helped disorient war parties launched by their rivals, chief among them the Lakota Sioux, who—because of their horse-bound nomadism—had escaped some of the worst ravages of smallpox and thus beset the more sedentary Mandans.
Disease and warfare caused the Mandans to desert many of these well situated and fortified sites, the haunting remains of which are still visible today as clusters of circular depressions in the earth at scattered sites throughout North Dakota. The artist George Catlin drew several scenes based on his observation of the four-day ceremony in Julyincluding one sketch depicting young warriors suspended from the ceiling of a ceremonial earth lodge by skewers dug into their chests, weighed down with buffalo skulls dangling from their backs.
It is tricky indeed for scholars—native but especially otherwise—to gain access to such information and then to use it with accuracy and care.
Fenn has surely done this, guided in no small part by her fascination with the Mandan world and her obvious affection for its living descendants. She has even drawn the maps for her own book.
In her acknowledgements Fenn showers gratitude upon her many informants, among them Cedric Red Feather, who in facilitated the first Okipa ceremony in at least years, with Fenn as an observer. If such generous inclusion has given her story added power, it has not compromised her ability to tell a balanced story; hers is an admiring but not romanticized of the Mandans.
But neither is it a story of simple declension. Rather, Encounters at the Heart of the World is a tale of risings and fallings … and risings again. After the devastation of the smallpox epidemic, the surviving Mandans improvised by settling near their sometime-rivals, the Hidatsas, with whom they alternately cooperated and feuded, tensions stemming usually from commercial access to outsiders, whether overland British traders from Canada or Americans coming upriver from St. Given this tiny pool of survivors, a skeptic might ask why the story of the Mandans should matter to the contemporary reader?
Unlike, say, the Sioux or the Comanches, who resisted U. Among many possible reasons, several stand out, beginning with the satisfaction of learning about a now obscure people who played such a critical role in a land we think we know well. Moreover, 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.
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The Tribe at the Center of America: The Story of the Mandan