Q&A: 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Fenn talks American history before 1492
Monday, CU Boulder history Professor Elizabeth Fenn received good news. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. It tells the story of the Mandan tribe, one of several indigenous communities who lived for centuries alongside the Missouri River.
In her book, Fenn argues American history started long before 1492 and that its main players are the indigenous people who occupied the land before Europeans arrived.
The Colorado Independent caught up with Fenn to talk about her book, her research and her take on the history of the Americas.
The Colorado Independent: For starters, congratulations. It’s exciting news.
Elizabeth Fenn: Thank you.
Talk about Encounters at the Heart of the World and your research?
The book is about a Northern Plains tribe known as the Mandans. The Mandans live in what is today North Dakota, and they had a thriving metropolis of villages from about the year 1350 up through the present. They faced a number of challenges including things like drought, epidemic diseases and invasions of new species. They proved to be astonishingly resilient in the face of all kinds of difficulties.
What the book is trying to do is to really use the Northern Plains as a counterpoint to our standard narrative of early American history, which is typically about 13 English colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard. What I show is that there is another story here too that is just as rich as the story along the Atlantic.
What’s the legacy of the Mandan people?
There are Mandans all over the place. But many are still on the Fort Berthold reservation up in North Dakota. They’re part of three affiliated tribes – the Mandans, Hidatsa and Arikara. They’re all lodge-dwelling agriculturalists who traditionally made their homes along the Missouri River. Today, they’re still in North Dakota on the Fort Berthold reservation. They’re actually in the midst of a big fracking boom today. They’re in the midst of the Bakken shale formation.
How has the community responded to the fracking boom?
I’m not in a position to address that. My book ends in 1845. That’s a long time ago. There has been a lot of coverage in The Times. There was a very good article in The Times about fracking on the res.
How do you see this story of the Mandans fitting in with some of the other narratives about American history?
Well, the case I make is that Native American history is American history. As a consequence, one of the things I believe we need to do is push American history far, far deeper than we usually do. By deeper, I mean, we need to push it further back into the past. I do not take 1492 as the starting point of American history; I don’t accept 1492 as the starting point of American history. American history begins with the people who occupied the continent. Throughout most of our past, those people were indigenous peoples, and their history is our history.
How do you see that project of changing how we view American history playing out in the schools and in curriculum? Is there any headway?
I think there has been tremendous headway. CU, for example, has just started a Native American and Indigenous Studies program that was just approved by the administration in 2014. I think it’s got terrific traction. I think there is momentum in academic circles, and I hope that there is momentum in K-12 classrooms as well.
It seems like the K-12 world of history is such a hotly contested space with so many different narratives about history – some of which are pretty wacky.
I agree. From what I know about the K-12 curriculum, I know that they’re under a lot of pressure from certain people to address only a few of the issues in our past and not address the full diversity of peoples who inhabit the Americas.
How did you get into this field?
Well, I started studying early American history when I was an undergraduate at Duke University back in the late-70s and early-80s. I did an honors thesis on Native Americans in the Hudson Bay fur trade. That’s what got me interested in early-American history and Native American history in particular.
Then I started graduate school in the early-80s, dropped out for a while, and then when I returned in the mid-90s, it was to continue work in that field and to work on a book on an enormous smallpox epidemic, a book called Pox Americana that described a horrific smallpox epidemic that swept North America from 1775 to 1782. In the course of doing that research, I came across the Mandans in North Dakota and realized that here was this beautiful stunning counterpoint to the traditional narrative of American history, and that really led me to this most recent book.
That history of resilience seems so different than the way indigenous history is often told as a narrative of defeat.
I don’t want to deny the horror of what has been inflicted on Native people, but I think that it’s a two-sided coin. On the one hand, what native people endured is absolutely unconscionable. On the other hand, their resilience and determination to adhere to traditions is just amazing and admirable.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Fenn.
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