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Elizabeth Fenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World Book Review

ElizabethFenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World Book Review

Thebook, Encountersat the Heart of the World: AHistory of the Mandan People,is written by Elizabeth Fenn, which discusses the history of theMandan Indians in America. The author is among the associateprofessors at the University of Colorado-Boulder (Fenn, p. 1). Fennnarrates about Mandan Native American tribe since 1689. The Mandanssettled in the northern plains along river Missouri in Dakota. Theyflourished in America because of their agricultural skills,commercial canniness and honesty to other people. The author hasaccounted about the landscapes where the Mandan People live asproductive and considers the place as the heart of the world. She hasretrieved their history through researching and combining the newdiscoveries in epidemiology, archeology, nutrition science,climatology, geology, and anthropology. Fenn’s interpretation ofdifferent research findings offers the readers new perspectivesconcerning the early history of America. To be clear and precise, thebook elaborates much about the history of Mandans from the 17thcentury and their interactions with other communities and the worldas Native Americans.

Thetitle reflects the self-understanding of the Mandans. There are twocreation stories concerning Mandan including migration led by Robeand making of the land by First Creator and Lone Man which conveyedthe location of the Mandans to be at the center. It is a geographicalfact because the Mandans native land occupies a region at the centerof North America. The Mandans adore this sentiment of centrality andfeel at home. However, the title has another significance that goesbeyond the geographical location and self-understanding of theMandans. In this, the author analyses how the people and their nativelands were at the convergence of international events. The MandanPeople were at the crossroads of global-changing processes becausethe colonizers passed through their homeland while going to India andthe United States also used the land for control of North Americaafter competing with Britain and France. The Mandan homelands andpeople were also involved in the global trade in furs which was anadded advantage to the community.

Accordingto the title of the book, the word encounters illustrates theexperiences that Mandans went through after colonial contact thatcontributed to the current small population in America. Between the1600s, white explorers and traders visited Mandan rural communitiesand territories not only to thrive in commerce but also left somediseases. The diseases which the author considers as encountersincluded measles, whooping cough, and smallpox epidemics. Theexplorers also brought Norway rats which damaged their corn storescontributing to the scarcity of food in the community. The infectionscaused deaths to many Mandans for some years that followed wheretheir population reduced to low hundreds in the mid-1800s. The authorcelebrates and brings to life the Mandans’ traditions and practiceswhile lamenting their fate.

Theauthor writes about the spiritual life of the Mandans on how theyrelated to each other, other communities and the world. Fennclarifies on how the Mandan People conducted their ritual practices.Okipa is the major ceremony that was performed for four days with theaim of restoring the balance among the individuals in the community.The Mandans continually embraced new emerging ceremonies andpractices and abandoned others after they outlasted their usefulnessor sustainability. Fenn’s spiritual understanding of Mandan`spractices is extraordinary from how other observers consider theNative ceremonies and customs as not authentic in which they maychange. The author examines the adaptability and continuity ofspiritual practices of the Mandans by using the present tense becausethey still exist. The author narrates that it is disrespectful toignore the Mandan’s spiritual life.

Theauthor’s work is entrenched intensively in archival research. Sheuses personal insights to narrate the story. Fenn uses rhetoricalquestions for the readers to think about the theme of the bookcritically. For example, she asks a question as it goes “How can Iunderstand the Mandans I am writing about when they inhabited a worldso different from my own?” She considers the question as a personalchallenge that all historians face while writing a book, a journal oran article (Fenn, p. 212). Her endeavor to understand and describethe Mandan universe forces her to research beyond conventionalhistorical sources. That is why she conducted dabbles and samplesfrom epidemiology, archeology, nutrition science, climatology,geology and anthropology for new discoveries about Mandans historyand gives conclusions for every field.

Everypage of the book is arranged chronologically with a standardframework. It follows the mosaic form of narrative because the storystarts with creation stories and livelihood of Mandan People andcontinues to tell a comprehensive narrative of reorientation,survival, upheaval and contact with other people. The book portraysabout the “survivance” of the Mandan people. The word is adynamic sense of presence which describes the continuity of thenative stories. Native survivance stories are the abandonment oftragedy, dominance, and fate. “Encounters at the Heart of theWorld” is the depiction of how the Mandan People survived theinfluence of the American military force, Old World plagues,Christian Missionaries, new technologies, proto-capitalists tradersand colonial usurpers. According to the author, the episodes ofpestilence, trade and war had a greater impact to Mandans but failedto eliminate their existence.

TheMandan People repeatedly suffered through various interventions,devastations, and onslaughts, but they learned and carried forwardwith their distinctive way of adapting the new circumstances. Theauthor closes her fascinating book by considering the spiritualconcepts of the Mandans. She narrates about the revitalization of theOkipa ceremony that was conducted in June 2011 at On-A-Slant Village(Fenn, p. 450). Lone Man was present at the event where people tellstories, danced, prayed and pondered the Mandan ways globally. Theauthor regards the spiritual beliefs as crucial to every individual,community or country to persist through any crisis.

Inconclusion, the book elaborates the root concerns of the authortowards the Mandan People and their motherland. She considers themconquerors throughout the book. She also regards to a living peopleby stating that they have lived for centuries. According to the book,the Mandans used the agricultural skills to cultivate the land andplanted corns for consumption and traded with the surplus to theneighboring communities such as Lakota and Arikara. It portrays thatthey are very hardworking. The book gives the history of indigenouspeople in America and what contributed to decreased population.Despite facing various tragedies and dominances, the Mandans enduredin their traditional and customary practices. The precise opening ofthe story encourages the reader to continue reading with the aim ofunderstanding the history of the Mandan People. I would recommendindividuals to read the book and learn about the history of MandanPeople which is the part of the American history.


Fenn,Elizabeth A.&nbspEncountersat the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People.New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux,2014. Print.