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Against the Grain | The Nation

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Against the Grain

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Mandans gathering buffalo berries, 1908. Photograph by Edward S. Curtis

Mandans gathering buffalo berries, 1908. Photograph by Edward S. Curtis

Encounters at the Heart of the World
A History of the Mandan People.
By Elizabeth A. Fenn.
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The Mandans were most secure, at least until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when they stayed home. The continent’s peoples and commerce arrived at and departed their towns like blood through arteries. The Mandans were cosmopolitan, encouraging, as one trader put it, “the perpetual presence of Strangers.”

They excelled as farmers. Women worked the fields, and corn was the center of their commerce, which was a complicated mixture of gift exchanges, theft and barter. Despite being a little too eager at times to reduce the complexity of these exchanges to a straightforward bartering, Fenn on the whole is extraordinarily good when using the elements of this trade to flesh out the dynamics of the Mandans’ world.

Although Mandan trade always included goods and peoples to their east and west, the Mandans operated in a North America whose axis was north/south. The critical connections were to the south, where goods moved hand to hand and people to people from as far away as the Pueblos and perhaps Mexico. Ultimately, horses became the staple of this south-to-north trade. Trade connected the Mandans with the Assiniboines to their north, and eventually to the British at York Factory on the Hudson Bay and the French with Canadian forts. The Americans sought, and eventually succeeded, in shifting this axis so that it ran east/west, but that happened late in Mandan history.

Much of what the Mandans traded (corn, bison meat, squash and horses) connected them quite intimately to the natural world, and Fenn, who is among other things a skilled environmental historian, adeptly embeds the Mandans in the blooming, blossoming, howling realm of other species, just as she skillfully integrates into the story the species that undercut and nearly destroyed the Mandan world: smallpox and the Norway rat. Fenn has already written a quite impressive book on smallpox, Pox Americana, which covers the history of an epidemic in North America between 1775 and 1782. It devastated the Mandans, Arikaras and Hidatsas, and left them exposed to an even more catastrophic blow by not returning for more than fifty years, creating two generations of Mandans with no immunity to the disease. The Norway rat is a more surprising story: rats migrated up the Missouri with the European settlers and were an environmental disaster for the Mandans. The Mandan towns, with their buried granaries, were as near to paradise as Norway rats could hope to find outside large cities. In the granaries they feasted on Mandan corn, which hurt Mandan trade and put the Mandans closer to the edge of hunger in a world closing in on them.

For historians, an attractive feature of exotic species—rats, smallpox and horses—is that they have chronologies. At one point in Mandan history they were not there, and then they were. And when they came, things changed. This makes them good markers for historians to think with, but because many of the texts and artifacts related to the Mandans do not have a clear chronology, there are limits to using them to tell a larger story. In part, this is a result of the evidence, fragments whose antecedents and consequences do not exist. In part, it is the result of how nineteenth- and some early twentieth-century ethnographers gathered evidence. Because they considered the Mandans, like other Indian peoples, as primitives—a people without history—they conceived of them as essentially changeless. Because they assumed Mandan culture was timeless, they thought it could only stay the same or break apart and be discarded. The ethnologist’s goal was to capture beliefs and knowledge that would otherwise be lost. Some older ethnologists regarded ceremonies and stories not so much as the instantiation of evolving history visible at a particular time, but rather as so many wormholes into and through a timeless and changeless past.

* * *

The problem of turning such material into a history is encapsulated in the town, or rather the archaeological site, of Double Ditch, originally constructed by the Mandans when they arrived in Heart River country in 1500. It is the only fully extant Mandan site that dates from their arrival. There was no contemporary chronicler of Double Ditch; we know the town only through its remains, as interpreted by modern archaeologists.

Double Ditch was a large, fortified village of closely packed lodges with fields running for miles along the river. It contained up to 2,000 people, indicating a total Mandan population of at least 10,000 to 12,000. There may have been as many as 20,000. Because it resembles the historic Mandan towns of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries visited by Europeans and Americans, some archaeologists have been keen to see Double Ditch as the prototype for the “traditional” Mandan town.

The existence of only fragmentary materials between 1500 and the late eighteenth century makes it tempting to reduce the intervening period to an ellipsis and assume that little or nothing had changed. It is only one more step to defining the years before extensive contact with the Europeans as the epitome of the traditional or “real” Mandan life. And, logically, if nothing much changed, then archaeological evidence, accounts of European visitors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and ethnographies compiled in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are all more or less recording a single cultural moment.

This was the common position of much nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnology. In 1965, Gene Weltfish, an anthropologist who lost her position as a lecturer at Columbia University when she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, published The Lost Universe. A student of Franz Boas, Weltfish had begun her research in the 1920s, drawing on archaeology, old travelers’ accounts, the letters of missionaries and agents, and the accounts of aged informants. Like Fenn, she painstakingly re-created the material, social and ceremonial life of the people she studied. She, too, worked with fragments, but Weltfish did not produce a historical account; instead, she tried to re-create, as her subtitle had it, “the way of life of the Pawnee” as it would have been in 1867. She detailed the everyday life and ceremonies of a single year. She assumed that, in that year, Pawnee culture was largely intact, and thus 1867 could stand in for a “traditional” Pawnee way of life. Weltfish wrote largely in an ethnographic present.

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