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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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Like Fenn, Weltfish sought “a New World life and a new and unfamiliar dimension in the human spectrum” that would allow Americans to “look at our own life with new eyes and be better able to perceive new paths to our own tomorrow to become the New World people that we really are.” The Lost Universe was part of an anthropological attempt to create “a science of society.” Weltfish ended the book with detailed lessons that she thought the Pawnees, as people who “were spared certain distortions of the human personality that have accompanied our mass industrialization,” could teach Americans trying to live in a postindustrial society. They were noble savages and had what other Americans lacked.

For all the ways that Fenn’s motivation resembles Weltfish’s, her account is much different. It is a history; she doesn’t posit an essential Mandan culture; there is no typical year. She emphasizes this in her text, and it is integral to how she forms her narrative. A chapter such as “Customs: The Spirits of Daily Life” could have ended up as an exercise in describing the ethnographic present, a timeless traditional world, but Fenn instead emphasizes a world in flux. Not only, for example, does she explicitly state that “Mandan spiritual life was fluid,” but she organizes the chapter to emphasize the fluidity: it jumps from Fenn at Mih-tutta-hang-kusch in 2009 to Fort Berthold in 1929–33, when an anthropologist, Alfred Bowers, worked with Indian informants, among them a Mandan, Crow’s Heart. She then turns back to another town, a mixed settlement of Mandans and Hidatsas called Like-a-Fishhook, in the winter of 1861, when a trader, Henry Boller, reported how the women of the White Buffalo Cow Society attempted to summon bison. This is not timeless or seamless knowledge; it is situated in a time and place. This is how historians re-create things, fragments retrieved from the centuries always in the midst of flux and change. When Fenn considers the Okipa, the great renewal ceremony of the Mandans, she has no desire to discover its original pure form. She admits “it is impossible to say what the first rites looked like.” The Okipa, Fenn insists, was “supposed” to change as the Mandans changed.

Fenn takes the same approach when discussing material culture. Corn has been critical to the Mandans from the beginning, but what is known about farming among them and the Hidatsas comes from the accounts of a remarkable woman, Buffalo Bird Woman, gathered in the early twentieth century, and so Fenn’s narrative jumps abruptly to include her not as a timeless vestige of traditional agriculture, but as a woman telling what she knows and how she knows it.

* * *

There are moments when Fenn strains too hard to narrate the periods during which much about the Mandans is unknown. She is one of the few scholars to think, for example, that Letter 16 of the Baron Lahontan’s New Voyages to North-America, which details his travels west of the Mississippi during the late seventeenth century, is not a fabrication made up from the oral accounts of other voyageurs and his own imaginings. It fooled eighteenth-century cartographers, who entered the Rivière Longue—which does not exist—on their maps; Fenn identifies it with the Upper Missouri. After Lahontan had fled his Canadian post and returned to Europe, he turned to writing to recover his fortune. He wrote a letter to the French court from Hamburg, claiming to have met survivors of the La Salle expedition there. Finding himself caught in a small lie, the French aristocrat was nevertheless clever enough to know that larger ones would have more hope of success. Apart from Letter 16, New Voyages was an entertaining account of his actual experiences in North Americas. But in Letter 16, Lahontan met the Essanapes, whom Fenn suggests were the Mandans, and the Gnacistares, whom Fenn interprets as the Hidatsas. Lahontan claims to have been mistaken for a Spaniard, and he in turn mistook the Indians (whom he called the Mozeemleks) for Spaniards because they were bearded and fully clothed. The Mozeemleks lived near a great salt lake, where they had six noble cities and 100 towns. Fenn suggests these were peoples of the Northwest Coast.

On the whole, however, Fenn is careful with her evidence. The holocaust that afflicted the Mandan in 1837 presents her with one of her most vivid sources as well as a narrative challenge. A smallpox epidemic brought by an American steamboat killed seven-eighths of the Mandan Indians in a matter of weeks. At Ruptare, it appears that only fourteen people survived out of a population of about 800. François Chardon, the factor at the American Fur Company outpost adjacent to Mih-tutta-hang-kusch, recorded it all in a chilling document. Fenn, however, keeps Chardon at a distance. Chardon was more complicated than a mere Indian hater, but he hated the Mandans. Fenn doesn’t disguise this, but she consciously sanitizes him, never quoting the last line of his description of the epidemic: “What a bande of RASCALS has been used up.”

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Chardon becomes a Cheshire cat: his presence recedes but his voice remains in Fenn’s text. It is his voice and his journal that records the speech of Mato-Topé or Four Bears, dying of smallpox. Four Bears had been a friend to the Americans, but he was no longer. “I do not fear Death…. But to die with my face [so] rotten, that even the Wolves will shrink with horror at seeing Me, and say to themselves, that is the 4 Bears the Friend of the Whites.” Four Bears regretted it all; he died hating the Americans as his “Worst enemies.” They were “a set of Black harted Dogs.” Excising the vituperation, the callousness and the seeming indifference with which Chardon chronicled the Mandan holocaust is a conscious decision on Fenn’s part. She is an artful writer, and Encounters at the Heart of the World is a carefully constructed book. It is as though, after 300 pages, Fenn does not want the Mandans cursed into their grave, nor does she want to divert attention from them to the man who recorded their greatest tragedy.

But, of course, the Mandans were not used up. They have survived, and in her book’s epilogue, Fenn offers an account of her participating, along with other non-Mandans, in the Okipa. It was the first time the ceremony had been held, she says, in well over a century. On my first reading, this ending seemed off-key and off-putting, but I have since changed my mind. The Okipa had earlier included non-Mandans, and, as Fenn emphasizes, the Okipa changes. In that respect, the epilogue is true to the book. It can be read not as the story of a seeker’s achievement of inclusion, but rather of the continuing cosmopolitanism of the Mandans and their ongoing participation in a larger North American history.

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