Elizabeth A. Fenn’s “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People” has won this year’s Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize from the University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies.
The book tells the story of the Mandan Indians of the upper Missouri River, who are now known mostly for assisting Lewis and Clark when the explorers chose to build their fort near the Mandan villages during the difficult winter of 1804-1805. Using new discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, climatology, nutritional science and more, Fenn delves deeper into their history to create a more complete picture of their lives. The Mandan had a reputation for hospitality, but they also had agricultural and commercial prowess. Fenn details this thriving civilization that collapsed when hit with disease and new commercial technologies, though a sense of tradition and culture endured.
“The book is more than the history of disappearance of a people. It demonstrates through this tragedy the general fragility of human cultures. A culture that took millennia to grow and develop in its complexity can disappear in the time of one generation,” said book prize chair Mila Saskova-Pierce, associate professor of modern languages and literatures at UNL. “With this loss of culture and language, humanity loses the sacred depository of existential experience of human beings, and a unique encoding of human thinking.”
Fenn is an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her field of study is the early American West, focusing on epidemic disease, Native American history and environmental history. She is also the author of 2001’s “Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.” “Encounters at the Heart of the World” was published in 2014 by Hill and Wang.
“This is a marvelous moment not just for plains history, but also for the Mandan people, who have made their homes here for so many centuries,” Fenn said.
This year’s finalists also included “American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890” by Jerome Greene, “Charles M. Russell: Photographing the Legend” by Larry Len Peterson and “Wild Again” by David Jachowski.
The book prize winner receives $10,000 and the Stubbendieck Distinguished Book Prize medallion. The prize was created to emphasize the interdisciplinary importance of the Great Plains in today’s publishing and educational market. Only first-edition, full-length, nonfiction books published in 2014 were evaluated for the award.
For more information about the Center for Great Plains Studies or the Stubbendieck Book Prize, visit http://www.unl.edu/plains.