By Published: Aug. 29, 2019

CU Boulder’s Elizabeth ‘Lil’ Fenn is one of 15 intellectuals nationwide to receive a Public Scholar Award

Elizabeth “Lil” Fenn wants to frame the story of Sacagawea as a window on the American West, and the National Endowment for the Humanities wants to help her.


Elizabeth "Lil" Fenn is a distinguished professor of history at CU Boulder.

Fenn, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder, has won a prestigious NEH Public Scholar Award, the endowment announced this month

The Public Scholar program aims to support popular nonfiction books in the humanities, and Fenn is one of only 15 scholars nationwide to win that support this year. The $60,000 grant from the Public Scholar Program will help Fenn complete a book titled Sacagawea’s World.

Fenn, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in history, said the Public Scholar Award is a “thrilling” honor. “It recognizes the fundamental importance of the Native American past to the American historical canon,” she said, adding:  

“Is it any accident that Sacagawea and Pocahontas are two of the most famous women in our history? The Public Scholar Award enables me to bring a sweeping new biography into public view—a biography that uses archaeology, rock art, Native voices, written sources and recent scholarship to illuminate Sacagawea's life and times.”

Paul Sutter, professor of history and chair of the department, noted that the Public Scholar Award is highly competitive but that her win was not surprising.

Renowned but also little-known, Sacagawea is precisely the kind of puzzling historical subject that Lil Fenn has been so skillful at elucidating."

“She has built a career as a historian whose work mixes academic rigor with beautiful and accessible writing,” Sutter said. 

He added that in her previous two books, Pox Americana and Encounters at the Heart of the World, “Lil skillfully opened up Native American worlds not easily found in the conventional primary source archives with which historians usually work.”

He said Sacagawea’s World continues in that vein by pursuing a biography of Sacagawea, best known for her presence on the Lewis & Clark Expedition, “that will re-center that story on the rich context of her life—and of Native American life more broadly—on the northern Plains and in the northern Rockies.”

“Renowned but also little-known, Sacagawea is precisely the kind of puzzling historical subject that Lil Fenn has been so skillful at elucidating,” Sutter said. 

“As a scholar whose work has already had broad public impact, Lil is also an ambassador for CU Boulder and for the vital role that history and the humanities must play in educating the next generation of Coloradans.”

Fenn returned the compliment, saying the award also reflects the vibrant atmosphere in the CU Boulder history department and in the arts and humanities generally: “I am surrounded by extraordinary colleagues who constantly challenge me to sharpen my teaching, my research and my ability to communicate.” 

“There is no place like it,” she said of the department. “I love going to work every day.”  

Fenn also said she appreciated the public’s support. “I know very well that taxpayers funded this award, and I hope to make them proud when the book comes out.”

Fenn is the second member of the CU Boulder history department to win this award. Thomas Andrews’ 2016 NEH Public Scholar Award contributed to his researching and writing of an animals’-eye view of U.S. history since 1400.