Peter d'Errico: Book explores Mandan people's history of survival

A portrait of Sha-kó-ka, a girl from the Mandan Tribe, by George Caitlin, 1832. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Retired professor Peter d'Errico offers praise for Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, a Pulitzer-prize winning book by University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Elizabeth Fenn:
The title—Encounters at the Heart of the World—reflects first of all Mandan self-understanding. Two Mandan creation stories—one of migration led by Good Furred Robe, the other of Lone Man and First Creator making land—each convey the position of the Mandan at the center of the world. The Mandan sense of centrality coincides with a geographic fact: the Mandan homeland occupies an area about 100 miles south of the geographic center of North America.

Peoples in their homeland often express this sentiment: we are at the center. A sense of centrality characterizes the phenomenon of being at home, in "ones place." But the significance of the title—Encounters at the Heart of the World—goes beyond Mandan self-understanding and geography. Fenn documents the ways in which the Mandan People and their homelands were at the confluence of global events. The colonizers' search for the Northwest Passage to India, the international trade in furs, the competition between France and Britain—and later, the U.S.—for control of the continent: the Mandan were at a crossroads of these world-changing processes.

The Mandan occupied a central economic and political position well before contact with Christian Europeans. They were go-betweens and partners for exchange of agricultural, hunting, and craft products among Native Nations on all sides.

After colonial contact, these relations of centrality exposed the Mandan to another form of traffic: the spread of the colonizers' diseases. Smallpox especially, but also measles and whooping cough, broke out in waves of epidemics—repeated, virulent episodes of sickness and death. Outsider diseases devastated the Mandan. We speak of "decimation," but that means killing one in ten; the mortality rate among the Mandan from the 1837 smallpox epidemic alone was 90%. All that were left was one in ten.

Get the Story:
Peter d'Errico: Encounters at the Heart of the World: Mandan Survivance (Indian Country Today 6/11)

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