In the Heart of the World, where the Heart and Missouri Rivers meet, the Mandan Tribe was once in tune with the geography, inhospitable climate and the cosmos.
Then came the Europeans and their innovations, along with much destruction. Yet University of Colorado Professor Elizabeth A. Fenn has managed to weave a tale of resilience, cultural identity and survival that overarches the arrival and encroachment of the settlers.
Her book, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People (Hill and Wang, 2014), won the Pulitzer Prize on April 20 for piecing together the rich history of the Mandan people of the Dakotas.
“Long before the arrival of Europeans and Africans from the so-called Old World, the Mandans and their forebears had learned to accommodate the vicissitudes of drought, climate change and competition with others for coveted resources,” wrote Fenn in her preface.
Faced with a dearth of documentation and historical record, Fenn became a gumshoe of sorts, taking “alternative approaches to research and narrative,” as she described it in her preface.
“I found myself learning and writing about archaeology, anthropology, geology, climatology, epidemiology and nutritional science,” she wrote. “The result is a mosaic I have pieced together out of stones from many quarries.”
Indeed, the very absence of material bears witness to the sidelining of Native cultures across Turtle Island as European settlements became more entrenched, especially as smallpox and other diseases decimated the Mandan and other tribes. But Fenn, 55, produced “an engrossing, original narrative showing the Mandans, a Native American tribe in the Dakotas, as a people with a history,” the Pulitzer Board said in announcing her prize. “Her pathbreaking account of centuries of Mandean prosperity and productivity gives us a new perspective on early American history, a new interpretation of the American past.”