Against the Grain
Popular history sometimes seems the intellectual equivalent of a child’s bedtime story—it thrives on repetition. The most common genre, often biographical, tells the same story about the same famous people or the same event, over and over again: the founding fathers, Lincoln, Custer, Teddy Roosevelt; Teddy Roosevelt, Custer, Lincoln, the founding fathers. The second genre—there are, I think, only two—is often written by men, some of whom are professors. It promises to provide the only history book that you will ever have to read, because it explains everything from the Neolithic until tomorrow.
Elizabeth Fenn’s Encounters at the Heart of the World is part of a small renascence in historical writing. Some of the most interesting of these new counternarratives—most of them written by women—move purposefully against the grain of popular history, much of which seems to be consumed by men. These historians also seek a popular audience, but they are uninterested in attracting readers with the usual bait. They write about unusual and uncommon topics. They juxtapose people, places and events not usually considered together, but whose pairing seems obvious once it is made. They certainly do not claim omniscience. Their histories are often tentative; they are persuasive because they acknowledge the limits of evidence, while displaying a kind of virtuosity in their ability to work from fragments. The authors often insert themselves into the narratives, so that the reader gets a sense of how the history has been fashioned.
But for all their presence in the text, the history is never about the historians. They are as interested in finding different ways to tell a story as they are wary of claiming too much certainty. The authors I’m thinking of have hit their stride, having already published more than one book. The best-known and most prolific of their number, Jill Lepore, has written most recently not about Benjamin Franklin but his sister Jane. In her book Plutopia, Kate Brown juxtaposes the towns of Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia—an obvious coupling, once it is made, of the places that produced plutonium in the United States and the Soviet Union. Conevery Bolton Valencius writes not about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. And Fenn, in Encounters at the Heart of the World, offers a history of the Mandan Indians, who usually merit only a footnote in the standard historical narratives.
Americans know the Mandans, if they know them at all, as the people who hosted Lewis and Clark during the first winter of their famous journey of exploration. By then, Mandan villages had been at the center of life on the northern Great Plains for roughly three centuries. Fenn traces them back even further in order to explore a millennium of North American history. The Mandans did not dominate this history; they were not conquerors. They were farmers and quite peculiar traders. By and large, they did not travel. Instead, they waited for the world to come to them.
The past is a crowded place, and any historian has to answer two basic questions: Why tell this particular story, out of all possible stories about the past? And why tell it in this particular way? Fenn is explicit, if brief, about the first. She goes to North Dakota, the middle of the Mandan world, for a very old American reason: she thinks something is missing from contemporary American life, and she believes the Indians know what it is. She has sensed that “the Mandan story provided an alternative view of American life both before and after the arrival of Europeans.” Her musings have the whiff of the spiritual seeker, and insofar as this is the case, it is a problematic reason to come to Indians, although hardly an uncommon one.
But Fenn avoids most of the traps of a pilgrimage to the Indians because she is such a good historian and storyteller. What she wants to do is use the Mandans to frame a narrative that does not turn American history into the foreordained progression of “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” She wants to destabilize the American narrative in terms of origins, in terms of time—it does not begin in 1492—as well as space: it does not radiate out from Jamestown, or Plymouth, or even St. Augustine. She wants to avoid a Whiggish view of history, which is ultimately a story of the inevitability of the present. She wants to restore possibilities that the past contains by returning to a time when the present seemed far from inevitable. This is a book full of guns, germs and steel, but it is in many ways the opposite of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. The story Fenn tells, one of many potential stories, centers on the confluence of the Heart and the Missouri rivers. There, the Mandans rise; the Mandans fall; the Mandans persevere. How they did so tells much about the intricacies of the continent’s history as well as the Mandans’.
The writings of explorers, traders, archaeologists and government officials account for most of Fenn’s sources, but she wants to take her stance not with them as they “discover” the Mandans, but rather with the Mandans themselves. Fenn is neither a Mandan nor, despite her book’s epilogue with its ambiguous “we,” does she pretend to be. Instead, she takes her stance in Mandan country, the heart of the world.
She has written a profoundly spatial history rooted in a place made by the Mandans and their neighbors, the Hidatsas and Arikaras. In Mandan stories, when Lone Man encounters First Creator, the latter proclaims that the Heart River is “the heart—the center of the world.” And it nearly is, at least if the world is confined to North America. The confluence of the Heart and the Missouri, just west of the hundredth meridian, is 120 miles southwest of Rugby, North Dakota, which is the geographical midpoint of North America. Today, it is a different kind of center: the focus of the Northern Plains shale-oil boom.
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The book begins not with the Mandans coming to their homeland, but rather with Fenn arriving in August 2002 at the Fort Berthold Reservation, where the Mandans, Arikaras and Hidatsas form the Three Affiliated Tribes. She has gone there “just to see if it felt right.” In the narrative, Fenn’s journeys within Mandan country become the spatial equivalent of the Mandans’ journey through time. Together, they form the book’s warp and weft.
Once the Mandans reached the Heart River around 1500, they remained largely in place, moving relatively short distances up and down the Missouri between the Heart and Knife rivers. Their journeys beyond their core homeland are uncertain. It is unclear if the “Mountain” (or Mayatáni, or Mayatána) Indians who traveled north to York Factory on the Hudson Bay around 1715 were either Mandans or Hidatsas, and if they were, how it happened that they—a people who used bull boats made of bison hides—so quickly mastered the birchbark canoe technology necessary to carry them there. Later, Sheheke, a Mandan chief, did travel to Washington, DC, but the journey had unfortunate consequences: he never quite found his place in the Mandan world again and ended up being killed by the Hidatsas.