Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People

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9780374535117: Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People

Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for History

Encounters at the Heart of the World concerns the Mandan Indians, iconic Plains people whose teeming, busy towns on the upper Missouri River were for centuries at the center of the North American universe. We know of them mostly because Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 with them, but why don't we know more? Who were they really? In this extraordinary book, Elizabeth A. Fenn retrieves their history by piecing together important new discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, geology, climatology, epidemiology, and nutritional science. Her boldly original interpretation of these diverse research findings offers us a new perspective on early American history, a new interpretation of the American past.
By 1500, more than twelve thousand Mandans were established on the northern Plains, and their commercial prowess, agricultural skills, and reputation for hospitality became famous. Recent archaeological discoveries show how these Native American people thrived, and then how they collapsed. The damage wrought by imported diseases like smallpox and the havoc caused by the arrival of horses and steamboats were tragic for the Mandans, yet, as Fenn makes clear, their sense of themselves as a people with distinctive traditions endured.
A riveting account of Mandan history, landscapes, and people, Fenn's narrative is enriched and enlivened not only by science and research but by her own encounters at the heart of the world.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth A. Fenn is an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she holds the Walter and Lucienne Driskill Chair in Western American History. She is the coauthor of Natives and Newcomers and the author of the award-winning Pox Americana (Hill & Wang, 2001). She lives in Longmont, Colorado.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE
 

Migrations: The Making of the Mandan People
DOUBLE DITCH STATE HISTORIC SITE, AUGUST 4, 2002
Double Ditch Village is desolate, windy, and magnificent. Perched on a grassy plain overlooking the Missouri River from the east, it is the kind of historic site I like best. It has no reconstructions and little interpretation beyond a few state-funded signposts. This unleashes the imagination in ways that places like Colonial Williamsburg never will.
If I believed in ghosts, they would abound here. Alas, I do not. But my mind’s eye still populates the town with hazy human figures, domed earth lodges, raised drying scaffolds, and yapping dogs. I picture women in hide-covered bull boats on the river below, ferrying firewood from afar. How full of life this place was. How quiet it seems now.
The Ruptare Mandans—one group among several that made up the Mandan people—occupied Double Ditch for nearly three hundred years. Shallow basins in the soil mark the places where they built structures for their daily life. Most of the smaller depressions we see today indicate the location of cache pits, once the warehouses for thousands of bushels of corn. The larger depressions denote earth lodges. The landscape is pockmarked with these silent homes of ancient Americans. I walk among them in the blustery wind.
Double Ditch takes its name from two distinctive trenches that once served as fortifications for the Mandan settlement here. Visitors can still see these trenches today. There are mounds too—not giant edifices like those famous ones built in what is now Illinois by the people of Cahokia, but small, low-lying forms on the outskirts of the town. Like the ditches, they had defensive purposes, perhaps sheltering Mandan warriors as they fended off attacks by the Sioux.
For an hour or so, I am alone among the lumps and depressions in the uneven field. Then a motorcyclist pulls into the looped parking area and doffs his helmet. I wave to him, and we wander together over the town site, wondering, speculating, and imagining out loud. He is a local, rides a BMW, and likes to visit Double Ditch on his outings. I admire his bike when we return to the parking lot. He straddles the seat and extends his hand. “Thanks for visiting North Dakota,” he says. Then he starts the engine and leaves. I do the same a few minutes later, crunching across the gravel in my rented car and turning left on Highway 1804.
Behind me, Double Ditch reverts to the wind and the gophers. I have no idea that just a few weeks earlier, archaeologists had made stunning discoveries about the empty town and its history.1
THE BEGINNING
Geography shaped every aspect of Mandan existence. It is a key component of the two Mandan creation stories. The first, a story of migration, tells of ancestral Mandans emerging from the earth at the mouth of the Mississippi River. They bring corn with them, and their chief, Good Furred Robe, bears the spiritual gift of “Corn Medicine.” Like all Mandans, Good Furred Robe derives his power from the bundles of sacred objects he owns. His particular bundles give him the right to teach others how to grow maize, and thanks to his efforts the Mandan forebears become accomplished farmers.2*
Migrations follow. Good Furred Robe and his companions travel north, up the Mississippi River. They come to the point where the Missouri enters the Mississippi from the northwest, but instead of following the Missouri, they continue upstream on the Mississippi, more or less straight north, pausing each year to plant and harvest corn. When they reach a land of “fine evergreen trees,” they learn to make bows and arrows and to set rawhide-loop snares in deer trails. Soon they have ample meat to eat with their maize.3
In time, they turn away from the Mississippi, now moving southwest and stopping near the southwestern corner of present-day Minnesota. Here Good Furred Robe carves a pipe from the soft red rock they find there. But when he offers it to his people, they shun it for their traditional black ones, saying, “We are afraid of it because it is the color of human blood.” Today, archaeologists find red catlinite pipes at ancestral Mandan sites only rarely, instead finding them mostly in areas where the Mandans lived in later centuries.4
While one group stays at the pipestone quarries, another ventures northwest, making camps along the Red River and its tributaries. The lure of bison draws the ancestral Mandans still farther westward from these locations. Eventually, they each come to the Missouri River at the point where the Heart River flows into it from the west, the two bands converging to plant their corn in the rich black soil of the bottomlands there.5
As recently as 1948, it was said that the Mandan corn bundle contained the skulls of Good Furred Robe and his brothers.6
The second creation story is equally attentive to geography, but instead of sprawling over the terrain like the first tale, it explains how that terrain came about.7
First Creator makes Lone Man, the story says, when the earth is still nothing but water. Lone Man walks across the waves for a long time. “Who am I? Where did I come from?” he wonders. Turning around, he follows his own tracks backward to find out.8
On the way, Lone Man encounters his mother in the form of a red flower. He also meets a duck. “You are diving so well,” he says to the duck, “why do you not dive down and bring up some soil for me?” The bird does so, and Lone Man scatters the earth about so there is land, albeit desolate land without any grass on it.9
Then Lone Man encounters First Creator, a person like himself. The two men argue until First Creator proves that he is older than Lone Man—in fact is his father. Dispute resolved, they decide to improve the countryside around them. From the Heart River confluence, Lone Man goes north and east, creating flat grasslands with lovely lakes, spots of timber, and many animals. First Creator goes south and west, making rugged badlands with streams, hills, and herds of bison.10
Returning to the Heart River, they make medicine pipes together. This would henceforth be “the heart—the center of the world,” First Creator said.11
Finally, they make women and men to populate the land.
RUGBY, NORTH DAKOTA, AUGUST—“MOON OF THE RIPE PLUMS”—200212
The women and men who lived at the heart of the world surely knew the first thing I learn when I visit Rugby, North Dakota, on August 6, 2002: The weather here can change wildly from hour to hour. In the morning, the temperature approaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But later in the day, my shorts and tank top do not even begin to keep me warm. I add fleece and a windbreaker, yet the wind cuts right through, spitting tiny drops of rain. In my subjective judgment, it is freezing.
I have come to the town of Rugby on a quest both silly and compelling. My destination is a twenty-five-foot obelisk of stacked rocks beside the Cornerstone Café there. A sign pronounces the monument’s significance in white letters against a brown background: GEOGRAPHICAL CENTER OF NORTH AMERICA, RUGBY, ND.
On the one hand, I am enthralled. How cool is this? On the other hand, I am embarrassed, just as I was years ago when I planted myself in four states at once at the more famous Four Corners location, more than a thousand miles southwest of here. The center of the continent, I think to myself. Who knew it was practically in Canada?
The Heart River’s confluence with the Missouri is 120 miles southwest, just beyond the hundredth meridian, touted by experts as the western limit of nonirrigated agriculture in North America.13 Whether or not this is the heart of the world, it is surely the heart of the continent. I marvel that I’ve never been to this place before, that I’ve never contemplated its meaning and implications.
The little obelisk in Rugby centers my mental map of the continent, but the physical feature that centers my geography is the Missouri River. Again and again I come back to it, driving two-lane roads along its banks, admiring its geological handiwork, and seeking the widely spaced bridges that offer easy crossing. The Missouri is North America’s longest waterway, draining more than half a million square miles through tumbling falls and lazy, looping oxbows.
The river seems steadfast, permanent, and reliable, but it is not. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who followed the Missouri upstream and back on their 1804–1806 expedition to the Pacific Ocean, marveled at its ever-changing currents and course. As they hastened downriver in August 1806, the men found that the waters they had traveled just two years earlier were barely recognizable. “I observe a great alteration in the Corrent course and appearance of this pt. of the Missouri,” wrote Clark below the Cannonball River confluence, in the section that spans the present North Dakota–South Dakota border. “In places where there was Sand bars in the fall of 1804 at this time the main Current passes, and where the current then passed is now a Sand bar.” Some familiar shoals had become islands: “Sand bars which were then naked are now covered with willow several feet high.” Even “the enteranc of Some of the Rivers & Creeks” had changed thanks to giant deposits of mud.14
Clark was a keen observer. The multifaceted Missouri—its course, its currents, its banks, its burden of silt, its appearance—shifted constantly. But it seems doubtful that even the geologically savvy Clark could have imagined the most dramatic change of all: The waters that fed the Missouri had once flowed northeast into Hudson Bay, not south toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The Yellowstone, the Little Missouri, the Knife, the Heart, the Cannonball, the James, the Cheyenne—today all these streams run into the Missouri, converging, at least where dams do not block the way, in a growing rush as the river approaches the Mississippi at St. Louis. But this was not the case before Pleistocene ice sheets rerouted the waters. Some 1.5 million years ago, before the ice sheets crept southward, all these streams flowed toward Canada, coming together to form an ancient waterway that emptied into Hudson Bay. Its remnants survive today as Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan and Nelson rivers, little known to most Americans, but of great importance in the historical geography of Canada.15
Then came the glaciers. They ground their way southward for two thousand years, advancing and retreating incrementally. At their peak, perhaps eighteen thousand years ago, they extended into the northern parts of what is now the United States. In North Dakota, only the southwestern corner of the state remained free of ice. The great Pleistocene ice sheets covered everything in their path, blocking the northward flow of the ancient tributary streams. The water ran the only way it could, turning southward and forming the changeable river that William Clark wondered at in 1806. The thirty-six-year-old explorer could hardly have known what had come before.16
ON THE MISSOURI RIVER, 1000 C.E.
Ancestral Mandans appeared in what is now South Dakota around 1000 C.E.17 Their arrival in the Missouri River valley coincided with a major climatic shift: a trend toward warmer, wetter conditions in the years from 900 to 1250. The trend extended far beyond the grasslands of North America. In Europe, these centuries coincide with the Medieval Warm Period, an era in which painters depicted bountiful harvest feasts, Norse settlers built colonies in Greenland and America, and peasants expanded their fields onto lands formerly too cold, high, or dry to plant crops.18
The ancestral Mandans were of a piece with those European peasants. Where the women of the Missouri tilled their gardens with hoes fashioned from animal shoulder blades, the commoners of Europe had the advantage of iron hoes, plows, and draft animals. But the plains villagers had an advantage of their own: They had settled in a location of stunning ecological diversity. The rich, alluvial river bottoms can be thought of as extensions of eastern deciduous forest in the midst of the western grasslands. And the adjoining steppe was one of the greatest hunting ranges in the world.19
SOUTH DAKOTA, KANSAS, AND NEBRASKA, 1250
The warm, wet conditions that drew the Mandans’ forebears to the Missouri River valley came to an end when a new weather pattern emerged around 1250. The change, which was piecemeal, was part of another global climate shift. In Europe, where the new era has come to be called the Little Ice Age, a pattern of cooler, less predictable weather settled in. On the North American plains, conditions may likewise have become less predictable, but the real marker of change was less rainfall, which put the horticultural lifeway to the test.20
The upper-Missouri settlers adapted as best they could. When harvests dwindled, they turned to wild plants to fill the void. Seeds of edible species such as dock, marsh elder, bulrush, and wild grasses all appear in archaeological remains from this period. So too do vestiges of wild fruits, which may have taken on new importance in arid conditions. Ancestral Mandans also adapted by migrating. Some headed north. Those who had built homes on far-flung feeder streams retreated to the Missouri River valley. With headwaters in the snowcapped peaks of what are now the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the Missouri was fed by more than parched grassland tributaries. Its water levels fluctuated, but so long as winter snows fell in the Rockies, the river persisted, even when rains failed on the plains. The Missouri offered another advantage as well: Capillary action in the adjacent grounds drew its water upward through the soil, providing irrigation from below. Crops grown in the river bottom could survive shortfalls of rain that might have desiccated plants elsewhere.21
As settlements contracted back to the Missouri River, and as the settlers adapted to reduced rainfall, they apparently came into competition with one another. They may even have come to blows, with one group or village attacking another in the quest for food. Several South Dakota village sites show signs of violent clashes as the dry era got under way. Archaeological evidence leaves the identity of the attackers uncertain. But one scholar suggests that as drought conditions worsened in the years before 1300, “individual communities” of ancestral Mandans may have “sometimes attacked each other.”22
Kindred neighbors were not the only competition these townspeople faced. The warm, wet weather that had first attracted them to the Missouri River had also enticed a different group of settler-farmers to establish themselves farther south, in the central plains region of present-day Kansas and Nebraska, beside what is now called the Republican River. These people were the forebears of the tribes later known as the Pawnees and Arikaras. By tracing the roots of the languages spoken by these peoples today, experts have determined that the inhabitants of the Republican valley were unrelated to the townspeople of the Missouri valley.* The ancestral Pawnees and Arikaras spoke a Caddoan language, named for the modern-day Caddo people, while the ancestral Mandans spoke a Siouan language, named for the modern-day Sioux, or Lakota, people. But linguistic differences did not change the most basic reality: Both groups were horticulturalists, and both depended on rainfall to bring their gardens to life.23
The climatic shift that began around 1250 left its mark on many other peoples, too, including Anasazis in the Southwest and Cahokians along the Mississippi valley. And eventually it turned the central plains into a dust bowl. Many of the Caddoans therefore abandoned the Rep...

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