Last speaker of Mandan language had lonely place

Lauren Donovan/Bismarck Tribune

Edwin Benson’s three daughters, from left, Janet Benson, Mary Lynn Eaglestaff and Heidi Hernandez, fold one of the many traditional blankets presented during his wake service Monday at Twin Buttes Community Hall.

Edwin Benson, of Twin Buttes, dies at 85

TWIN BUTTES – Edwin Benson is making his journey to the spirit world and, if his prayers are answered, he will finally be in the company of others who can speak to him in a language nearly lost on Earth.

BY LAUREN DONOVAN

Bismarck Tribune

Benson, of Twin Buttes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, died Friday at the age of 85. He was the last living soul who could fluently speak Mandan and his death brings the possible extinction of a language that expressed the unique experiences and perceptions of a once-thriving tribe of Plains Indians.

A wake was held at Twin Buttes Monday, a night of frigid cold outside, where the tradition of honoring the deceased with beautiful star quilts and woolen blankets was warm in remembrance.

The solitary coffin at the front of the hall – bedecked with elaborate headdresses and flower arrangements – held so much more than the mortal remains of a man. It contained all the diversity that a language adds to the world and for that, most especially, Three Affiliated Tribes Councilman Cory Spotted Bear came to express his regrets at Benson’s passing.

“The world we live in becomes less. The language is the way the Mandan see the world,” Spotted Bear said.

Spotted Bear has been behind efforts to preserve Nu’eta, the proper word for Mandan, not only through his earlier work with Benson and personal graduate work in linguistics, but through a two-year, $1 million project funded by the tribe to document and collate all known records of the language.

Many of those were made by Benson himself, who for decades has worked with various linguists and others to document what everyone knew was a dying language. One by one, those few Mandan – maybe 150, according to historians – who survived 1830s smallpox epidemics eventually died and their even fewer Mandan-speaking children died, too.

“He never asked to be the teacher of the language; he was more called to be. He was a simple rancher at heart,” Spotted Bear said.

Even with the money invested in documenting the language, it’s possible there may never be another fluent speaker, according to Spotted Bear. “I believe that race is social. For our kids’ and for the sake of future generations, we’ve worked hard to revitalize the language and here in Twin Buttes, we have the most extensive collection of the Mandan language and old-time recordings in the world.”

Benson’s daughter, Heidi Hernandez, said, in the end, her dad’s final effort to give so much of himself and his knowledge was becoming too much.

“He said he’d done enough now and he was tired,” she said. “This language which made Dad so well-known across the world, I’m afraid it’s extinct.”

Benson’s friend and tribal historian Marilyn Hudson recalls him telling her that the distinction was its own burden.

“He said it was lonely to be the only one,” Hudson said.

None of Benson’s daughters learned Mandan, or Nu’eta, growing up with a mother who spoke Lakota and a father who could speak Mandan and Hidatsa.

“They didn’t want to confuse us, so they just spoke English,” Hernandez said.

Art Smith, a tribal elder and senior pallbearer, said Benson was an important man who helped many in his community.

“I honor him. He was a language teacher and a doctor,” he said, referring to the honorary doctorate conferred to Benson in 2009 by the University of North Dakota.

Beyond the fact that Mandan speakers were the most decimated by smallpox among the three affiliated tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, Smith said the early, white-influenced education of Native American children was brutal.

“I saw some kids get beat so hard they couldn’t get up because they talked their language in school,” Smith said.

Indrek Park, a linguistics researcher with Indiana University’s American Indian Studies Research Institute, is part of a university team that had worked for more than two years with Benson to preserve the language up until a month before he died.

Park said beyond being the last Native speaker, Benson was a living anachronism, a 19th century man living in the 21st century.

“His mother died when he was 1 year’s old and he was brought up mostly by his grandfather, Ben Benson, who was among those who were born in an earth lodge and hunted the buffalo. Had his mother lived, his language would have been Hidatsa,” Park said. “Usually, behind every last speaker of a language is a personal tragedy. He was always lonesome. He lived with sadness.”

Park said he had previously compiled a 2,000-page dictionary of Hidatsa words and grammar and he’ll continue to pull together 100 years’ worth of various writings and recordings of Nu’eta, including Benson’s many contributions.

“The work is not nearly over, but now, there’s no one to consult with,” he said. “There are a few left who still understand a recording and could translate, but they could not form their own sentences. He was the last.”

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)


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