Mandan Language

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Sep 15 20:00:47 UTC 2003

Mandan elder seen as language's last hope

By the Associated Press

FARGO -- Edwin Benson stumbles through a few false starts before he catches
his rhythm telling an old story about how a coyote turned into a buffalo.

He sits on a stool draped with a woolly buffalo hide across from a man
recording him with a digital video camera mounted on a tripod.

After only a few minutes, Benson holds up his hand to stop the camera.

"My throat got a tickle," he explains. "I didn't want to cough."

Then, once Benson catches his stride, his tale of a conniving, hungry
coyote tempted by a lame buffalo calf begins to unfold.

Benson's occasional apology in English interrupts his low rumble of
guttural sounds, with inflections that rise and fall like rolling hills.
He's speaking Mandan, the first language he spoke growing up in his
grandfather's house along the Little Missouri River.

Now, with more than seven decades behind him, Benson's command of his
native tongue is rusty from disuse.

He speaks Mandan mostly on ceremonial occasions and in the classroom, where
he teaches fundamentals of the language to children in a school three miles
from his rural home on the Fort Berthold Reservation, which straddles Lake
Sakakawea in west-central North Dakota.

Benson has watched as the language of his childhood has disappeared around
him, dying a little more with the passing of each elder in a dwindling pool
of fluent native speakers. Now only a handful remain.

Linguists consider Benson the last truly fluent speaker of Mandan. Even his
wife, Annette, who watches quietly from the corner as Benson tells his
story, can't speak the language.

"It's a lonely life, it's a lonely life," he said. "If I want to say any
Mandan words, I've got to say it to myself and I don't want to say it too
loud, otherwise people might think I'm going wacky."

When Edwin Benson dies, the main living library of the Mandan language, a
language spoken for thousands of years along the valley of the Upper
Missouri River and its tributaries, will die along with him.

The Mandan Edwin Benson learned while growing up often came to him as a
stream of stern paternalistic commands and lessons.

His teacher was his grandfather, who raised him and taught him some of the
old ways the Mandan had followed for centuries.

Ben Benson was a living link to the ancient practices of the Mandan. He was
born in the latter part of the 1800s in Like-a-Fishhook Village, the last
traditional earth-lodge village of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, three
neighboring tribes that came together as their numbers dwindled from

Traditional ways were in long decline when Edwin Benson was born in 1932.
Like-a-Fishhook Village was abandoned in 1882 when its residents were moved
to the reservation's agency village, Elbowoods. Cabins made from split logs
replaced the domed earthen lodges.

After his mother died, his grandfather kept Edwin, the youngest of five
children, at home with him. Several sisters were sent to a boarding school
in Billings, Mont., where speaking native languages was forbidden.

Growing up in his grandfather's household, Benson heard and spoke only
Mandan. He encountered English when he first attended school, at age 7.

"English language didn't make no sense at all when I attended classes," he
said. "But I picked up the language watching what others did."

He served a tour in the Army, then spent a couple of years as an itinerant
laborer in the Pacific Northwest, a time when he drank heavily.

After he returned to Fort Berthold, he married in 1955 and eventually
settled on high land that had been in his mother's family, three miles from
the Mandan community of Twin Buttes.

Occasionally, Benson drives down as close as the waters of Lake Sakakawea
will allow, to the place where the Little Missouri joins the Missouri
River, where his grandfather's house and father's cabin once stood beneath
the cottonwoods.

"I still feel bad when I go back down there to look," he said. "A lot of
our ways, how we did things, is all kind of buried there under water, under
the big body of water.

"My language is down there, my culture is down there," he said. "It's not
really with me."

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