Pulitzer Winner Talks About Researching History, Resilience of the Mandan People

NOTE: Fenn will speak at Augustana University at 7 pm on Thursday, March 10 in Sioux Falls. A public meet and greet reception is at 3 pm at the Center for Western Studies.

“For some reason people always said their history could not be written,” Elizabeth Fenn said of the Mandan tribe. “It seemed to me that it could.”

Encounters at the Heart of the World - low res.jpgAnd that was how Fenn, a strikingly direct and original scholar, described her book, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History last year. Her decade of research involved tracking the appearance of the Mandans in explorers’ and fur traders’ journals and in archaeological trenches; biking the Sakakawea Country in North Dakota around the lake that flooded the tribe’s home in the 1950s; and interviewing contemporary Mandans and participating in their tribal ceremonies.

“At some point you have to be creative in your use of evidence,” Fenn acknowledged in our telephone conversation. “Of course it’s incumbent on you to be honest, frank about the ambiguities, and clear about the gaps.”

It’s refreshing to hear a historian talk about being creative, but Fenn, chair of the History Department at University Colorado Boulder, has always chosen the inventive path. A child of the New Jersey suburbs (schoolteacher mother; father in corporate human resources), she lived in a tipi for a while as an undergraduate at Duke. She dropped out of graduate school to study auto mechanics, and was employed for eight years in garages in the South.

“I’ve always liked working with my hands,” she said. She still misses the rough atmosphere and flying insults of the garage. “Those guys put me in my place in ways that were really valuable and important.”

Fenn resumed her PhD studies at Yale when she found a topic that engaged her – the smallpox epidemic that raged through North America during the Revolutionary War, and, according to her, shaped the war’s strategies and outcome. A French novel about cholera that she’d picked up while working as a mechanic, Jean Giono’s The Horseman on the Roof, fired her up.  “It was absolutely inspirational in the way it conveyed something terrible with immense beauty. I was very taken by that.” She described her years trying to gather evidence of smallpox and track its spread in lists of burial records as an act of meditation and form of witness: “Like the AIDS quilt or the Vietnam Memorial, the sheer volume of names and monotony of form made [the lists] monumental.”

pox americana.jpgThat research turned into her affecting 2001 history, Pox Americana. About 25,000 men died in the Continental Army over the course of the Revolution; across the continent and during the same period, she calculated that the epidemic claimed at least 130,000 lives. One place that was devastated by the disease, Fenn discovered, was near the geographic center of the continent in what is now North Dakota. There, Mandans traded with an impressive array of both friendly and hostile tribes, as well as with British, French, Spanish, Russian, and American travelers. Lewis and Clark famously wintered there on their trek west.

The place where all came to trade proved particularly vulnerable to the epidemic and the Mandans were nearly obliterated, losing almost 70 percent of their population to smallpox. Fenn had not known their story at all.  “I was amazed reading about this semi-urban center in the middle of the country with villages of teeming people. It was striking how many people there were – thousands,” she said. She wrote Encounters at the Heart of the World to learn all she could about that world.

She organized the book episodically, in short, engaging sections anchored by datelines like “Crow Creek Village, South Dakota, Mid-1400s” and “On the Upper Missouri River, 1781.” The fractured structure is both readable and inventive. Her model was Randy Schilts’s history of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On. “I assign the Schilts book to students in history of epidemic disease. It’s monstrously long, 600 pages. The students never finish it during the semester, but they send emails from the beach over the summer saying, ‘Hey, I finished that great book!’”

Encounters at the Heart of the World is about half that length (plus 100 pages of notes), and though it ends in 1845, it was long enough, Fenn felt: “There are many chapters after that, but that’s for someone else to do. I’m not a twentieth century historian.” She mentioned two more recent challenges that the tribe has weathered: the flooding of the homes of the Three Affiliated Tribes—Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara— to make the Garrison Dam in 1953 and the contemporary fracking boom, now all but busted after the drop in oil prices.  “If anything emerged in sharp relief for me in writing this book, it’s the resilience of the Mandans,” she said.

Fenn, who is in her fifties and lives with her husband, the historian Peter H. Wood, knows what she wants to write next: a history of Sakajawea (also known as Sakakawea), the Shoshone woman and captive of the Hidatsa tribe who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition west. “That book came to me in a lightbulb moment when I realized that I could craft not so much a new biography as a way to convey the history of the early West, using her life as a thread,” Fenn said. “She and Pocahontas are probably the most famous women in American history. I want to use her life and the controversies surrounding her to make the bigger history of the early West available to a wider audience.”  I asked her to pronounce the name again and Fenn sighed. “I pronounce it with great trepidation. If you’re Hidatsa, it’s Sakakawea; if you’re Shoshone, Sakajawea. You’re basically revealing your hand in Native American politics by how you pronounce it. I’ve toyed with the idea of spelling it differently chapter to chapter.” 

Since the announcement of the Pulitzer, though, and the subsequent flood of speaking invitations, the research for that book has had to be postponed. Fenn isn’t complaining; she’s happy for any opportunity to talk about history.

“This is what professors are accustomed to, speaking about their subjects. I’m trying to say yes to as many invitations as possible. The humanities are in a moment of crisis. We haven’t been doing our work to make things absolutely accessible.” She particularly feels an obligation as a historian of the early West. “Traditionally American history began in 1607 with the first permanent English colony at Jamestown. My argument is that American history begins with the people who occupied America. Native American history is American history.”

  --- Interview by Marilyn Johnson, whose most recent book is Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, a New York Times bestseller and one of Publishers Weekly’s best 100 books of 2014. Johnson, a long-time Festival presenter with her husband Rob Fleder, is the author of two other works of entertaining non-fiction, The Dead Beat and This Book Is Overdue.