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

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  384 Ratings  ·  76 Reviews
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
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published March 11th 2014 by Hill and Wang
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Nov 14, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2015, hbc-bom
Encounters at the Heart of the World is a detailed history of the Mandan people from the Missouri river valley area of North Dakota. This is a tribe that was once a large, thriving people that over time was nearly decimated. They battled natural elements, disease and rodents brought by European traders, and battled area tribes, losing 90% or so of their population. Today they are remembered and their descendants have begun to reignite the customs and ceremonies once celebrated by the Mandan peop ...more
Apr 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent book and Fenn's research is amazing. The writing (or perhaps jus the subject matter) can be uneven at times, and the ending seems a bit rushed. -- but with the smallpox epidemic I can see why. Worthy of its Pulitzer Prize
Sep 13, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Encounters in the Heart of the New World covers the known history of the Mandan tribe from first European contact until the mid 19th century. The Mandan lived in villages comprised of impressive earth lodges in present day North Dakota along tributaries of the upper Missouri. They are believed to be distantly related to the Sioux tribes or at least the roots of their language suggest so.

Tragically the Mandan people were decimated by 1837 (from a population of several thousand to only 100 people
Julia Hendon
Feb 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
An impressive feat of research and writing that makes the most of a scattered and diverse set of sources to produce a fascinating history of the Mandan people through the early 1800s. Renowned throughout the Missouri River watershed as traders and farmers, host to Lewis and Clark, and willing to extend cordial relations to all comers as long as they kept the peace, the Mandan were powerful players in the complex social framework of the region. Fenn emphasizes how they saw themselves as at the ce ...more
This is one of those books where you understand why it won a prize.

Odds are you've heard of the Mandan people, even if you are not aware of them. Lewis and Clark met them; it's where Sacajawea and her husband joined the group.

Wein's book is a, as she calls it, a mosaic. It is not a linear history, but more of a cultural history. It's fascinating and the parts about the Native Americans and disease are particularly hard to read. The book is not only about the interactions between various Native A
Apr 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Packed full of information, to the point that it is probably of little interest to the general reader. Still, a valuable window into the lives of the western Indians. Perhaps this could be read in conjunction with the much more engaging Empire of the Summer Moon, about the very different but partially contemporaneous Comanches.
Nov 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
History is clearly written by the victors, and this lesson was clear even before this book was written - for how many of us had heard of the Mandans this great native tribe that was the engine of agriculture and commerce at the centre of North America? We know of the Sioux, Apache, Blackfoot and Crow - largely through many "Westerns" (movies) - but because the Mandan were largely farmers and traders, and their lives was not "sexy", they never make it to the "big screen" and hence into our imagin ...more
Oct 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having lived in rural Kansas, I like reading books about the plains Indians. This book was about the Mandans who lived in South Dakota, and their rituals were very similar to other tribes of the midwest. Fenn gives a good description of the history of the Mandans, and their tragic demise with the encroachment of the white race.
May 18, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Yes, it won the 2015 Pulitzer for history and it paints a valuable anthropological picture of the Mandans, but it was much too long and included too much detail in the chronological telling. Using a thematic approach would have made the book much more readable.
Reid Holkesvik
Apr 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I live in South Dakota and my uncle grew up in Bismarck ND and did amateur archaeology there at Mandan sites. I never really new what the story of the Mandans was, who they were, how they came to help Lewis and Clark, and how they pretty much disappeared from history within a few decades. This book takes a mountain, well, a large hill, of scattered historical documents and sources and has turned it into clear narrative which tells what happened. Along the way we meet successful and clever Mandan ...more
Jul 16, 2014 rated it liked it
I gave this book three stars because I did learn some things about the Mandan, but overall I found the book too Eurocentric and a weak attempt at truly understanding the Mandan. It was a book about the Mandan culture through a European lens of diseases and epidemics and needed more of a Native American view. There was too much focus on the author’s background of writing about smallpox epidemics in America and it carried over far too much in this book. Overall the book lacked continuity and neede ...more
Maggie Reed
Jul 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Believe it or not, this is another book that is overfilled with footnotes. Still, it was fantastic research on the Mandans,Hidatsas, Arikaras, Yankton Sioux, and a little bit on the Crees, Blackfeet, Crow and a few others. I learned a great deal about the northern end of the Louisiana Purchase, its history before French "ownership", and the eventual acquisition by the US. You just have to read it. It's not hard to read, and I'd be writing another book just based on my description. :) Elizabeth d ...more
Nov 07, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
An interesting and deeply sad bit of history and some impressive research, though I was put off by the structure--almost every page is a new section--and the author's insertion of her somewhat dull travels. (Example: in one two-page section she bikes down a road, and at the end somebody tells her she passed a bison jump without realizing it. She thinks about going back, but doesn't.) I'm surprised this won a Pulitzer, but then again I'm not qualified to judge what academic contribution it may ha ...more
Jul 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In my e-book Oyster version, the story itself ends at the 60% mark. There are 195 digital pages of end notes. Remarkable. A superb work of true scholarship. Little wonder Dr. Fenn earned a Pulitzer this year (2015).
Jo Stafford
Mar 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I first read about the Mandan people in a book about Lewis and Clark and I wanted to learn more about them. Fenn's engrossing book fit the bill perfectly for me. It's well-structured, meticulously researched, written in an accessible and lively style, lavishly illustrated, and very informative.
Jan 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pulitzer-winners
I was most impressed with Elizabeth Fenn's straightforward, objective telling of this history. In every category, from spiritual to militarial to cultural, Fenn treated the views and actions with respect and told them unbiasedly. I rarely felt she was inputting her own opinion/view into the matter, and that is how a historical author should write. I want to know what happened, not how you view what happened. After giving some statement, she did not follow it up with a comma and then a short snid ...more
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
What a loss it is to the world that the Mandan were brought so low. They were a great people. It makes me glad to know that present-day Mandans carry on the traditions to the best of their ability. This book made me cry.
Sep 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
SOOO interesting. I am convinced that not many of us know or understand the history of American Indians before European arrival. The story of the Mandans was completely fascinating.... so much I did not know: the Mandans were the corn agriculturists and they traded for most of their meat from the nomad tribes that were the hunters. Serious and planned trading! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the trading among American Indians! We tend to not use our recognized leadership and business adjectiv ...more
Sep 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
Fantastic book. The writing was great. The maps, pictures, and art were a great addition to the history of the Mandan. I wish she would have continued to the 21st Century the way she developed the years prior, however, I am sure that it is difficult after the tribe was nearly wiped off the face of this earth by smallpox virus brought by a riverboat... Elizabeth Fenn did a wonderful job writing this book. There are book marks all over my book that I have enjoyed sharing.

The other night as my hus
Oct 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Mandans were a culturally sophisticated tribe with a social structure organized around agriculture. Since their homeland was in North Dakota, they were isolated from colonialism longer that many of the plains tribes. The book is very well researched but has gaps, making a reader wish that the sources included fieldnotes from some 19th century ethnographer. I did appreciate the inclusion of the author’s experience of the Mandan territory. The book is also a caution about the process of data i ...more
Apr 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A detailed and well researched study on the Mandan native American tribe who once thrived in what today is South Dakota. This book graphically portrays the typical struggle that many tribes had to go through once they made contact with European white men. At first there is mutual optimism that these groups will both benefit - especially due to trade. There is much unique data the author unearths regarding tribal customs including ceremonies many involving a great degree of sexual content. Altho ...more
Jan 14, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dr. Fenn did a wonderful job covering the daily life and culture of the Mandan--clothing, spiritual life, agriculture, etc. This was a well-written history for the most part, though her occasional intrusions of her experiences while researching struck me as odd and there were a few redundancies late in the book. Overall it is an excellent book for those who are interested in American Indian history and want to know how one tribe lived and thrived for hundreds of years before white contact decima ...more
Jun 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Living and working in the Dakotas, I developed an interest in Native America culture on the Great Plains. This is a nice overview of North Dakota's Mandan people, one of the few agricultural tribes on the plains. This book covers their history before, during, and after the westward expansion of European settlement. Not as comprehensive as I wanted it to be but well researched. Because of the combination of no written history and waves upon waves of smallpox decimating their population, thus effe ...more
Maryclaire Zampogna
This is a very informative book for the history lovers, on the lives of the Mandan Indians of North Dakota. The author describes the life styles, their homes and their food and the importance of each, to the future people coming west. Lewis and Clark and other explores from Canada spent time with the Indians learning their ways and customs. The author explores how whooping cough,
small pox and sexually transmitted diseases spread through to the Mandan and others in the Plains along with blankets
Andra Watkins
Nov 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I gave it 4 stars because the author did extensive research, trekked through some hostile country on a bicycle, and bonded with the Mandan people. While she tried to recreate them, there's so much we can't know. It's the juncture where history becomes supposition and fantasy, and it frustrates me to see historians make leaps when they can't dig up concrete evidence to support their stories. Fenn worked to connect the dots, and for that I
Oct 04, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book I never would have picked up, had it not won a Pulitzer Prize. Having said that, though, I must say that I really enjoyed this book, as it described a people, a culture, and a world I knew virtually nothing about. Fenn's writing is very good, and her perspective is multifaceted as she traces the long, slow, decline of the Mandan people of North Dakota. She describes a tragedy that unfolds in slow motion as we read about daily life in central North Dakota in the 17th and 18th centu ...more
May 06, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and unvarnished look at the Mandans and related tribes in North and South Dakota. Fenn has done meticulous research for this book, and although sometimes the information content is a bit dense, it is still quite an enjoyable read. It is also a sad book, as the Mandans are one of the tribes that were nearly decimated from a combination of new diseases, small pox being the most prominent, but also including whooping cough, measles and cholera. By the middle of the 19th century they w ...more
Jan 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
FIRST LINE REVIEW: "The climate of North Dakota hardly ranks among North America's most hospitable." Oh, I know how true that is! But despite the climate, this fascinating book chronicles the history of one of the most hospitable of all Native American tribes...the Mandans. I knew nothing about them prior to reading this recent Pulitizer winner, but I'm so glad that I now better understand this "lost" people. Brilliantly researched and lovingly told, this is an important book about our first Ame ...more
Alberto Lucini
This is more of a research paper than a story. It is excellent for those looking to conduct detailed studies of native Americans. Otherwise it is too laborious. The story line also seems to jump around and is hard to follow. The book could be condensed to half its length to be more readable. Other then their sexual culture and rituals, I didn't find the Mandans to be that interesting. They seem to be on the periphery of other, more interesting historical occurrences.

The book is rather forgettab
Claudia Mundell
Aug 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an excellent book full of research and a mountain of information. I could not soak it all up in one reading. I had some mistaken ideas of the Mandan people and this book set me straight somewhat but also gave rise to more questions. They were hospitable people who greeted Lewis and Clark...they suffered tragically from the small pox. Read this to not just learn of the Mandans but for an overview of how people live, move, change relationships with other groups, alter the earth by their e ...more
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“Pierre de la Vérendrye and his companions had encountered a people blessed with material abundance. “Corn, meat, fat, dressed robes, and bearskins” were all among their riches. “They are well supplied with these things,” the Frenchman wrote. But his abbreviated journal barely mentions the villagers’ equally rich ceremonial life.1” 1 likes
“The waters that fed the Missouri had once flowed northeast into Hudson Bay, not south toward the Gulf of Mexico.” 1 likes
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