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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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The Last Speaker:
UND To Honor Mandan,
Last To Speak Nu'eta As 1st Language
by Jodi Rave of the Missoulian
credits: Photo by Mike McCleary - Bismarck Tribune

Edwin Benson will wear a cap and gown for the first time in his life since majoring in the language, customs and traditions of the Nu'eta, a knowledge base passed to him from elders who lived in the last historic earth lodge village of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.

Benson has been awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of North Dakota.

“If anyone deserves it, he deserves it,” said Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa and National Park Service superintendent at Mount Rushmore. “He's one of the best professors I've ever seen. It goes beyond the honorary caption. He goes way beyond a doctor in the academic sense.”

Benson, 78, who lives in Twin Buttes, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Reservation, has gained international stature for his vast knowledge of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. He's renowned for graciously sharing his knowledge with all people.

The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education recently voted unanimously to award Benson with the honorary doctorate. He will receive it Saturday during UND graduation ceremonies in Grand Forks, N.D.

“I had a white man call me with great news I never expected from a white man,” Benson said in a phone interview from Twin Buttes Elementary School. “To be honest, I cried. I felt better after I cried. I didn't know how to accept it. It was like a dream, too good of a dream to be true, too good to wake up.”

Benson, born in 1931 on the Fort Berthold Reservation, grew up in the Little Missouri community, where the Little Missouri and big Missouri rivers met, an area now flooded.

He was raised by his grandparents, Buffalo Bull Head (Ben Benson), a Mandan, and Brown Chest, a Hidatsa woman. The first language Benson learned was Mandan. He also became fluent in English and Hidatsa. He also knows some Lakota and Arikara.

“After some four decades as a Mandan of international stature, Edwin Benson still reflects the best ways of his people like a beacon over the land,” wrote UND professors Virgil Benoit and Jon Jackson, who endorsed the honorary degree nomination. “The struggle to preserve cultures and languages that represent other older ways of thinking and other older knowledge is a struggle that the university can and should engage in and support in as many ways possible.”

UND ranks among a growing legion of institutions and organizations who recognize the unique scholarship possessed by men like Benson. While Benson is a “living encyclopedia” of the Three Affiliated Tribes, he is also acknowledged as the last fluent male who learned Mandan as a first language.

“I'm the last one to be speaking the Nu'eta language,” Benson said. “There's no one else for me to go talk to and converse fluently with. No more. I lead such a lonely life. It's sad that I can't speak my language that I knew, the first language that I knew, and to grow old with, to no one today. To no one at all. And it's a lonely life.”

On Tuesday, May 12, Native language teachers from across the country will gather at the second annual National Native Language Revitalization Summit in Washington, D.C. Benson is scheduled to offer the summit's opening prayer in Mandan at the National Museum of the American Indian.

While UND has honored Benson, the elder has long held the highest degree of respect among the people of Fort Berthold, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“Edwin is like a living encyclopedia, a living history book of all three tribes,” said Pemina Yellow Bird, a Three Affiliated Tribes citizen, in a letter of support for the honorary degree. “His knowledge of our collective history, music, stories, values, customs and beliefs is so very precious to all of us.”

As a doctor of philosophy, Benson, like a true professor, has long shared his knowledge with youth, community members and academic scholars. Even though he could be fully retired, he continues to teach the Nu'eta language to students at the Twin Buttes Elementary School, a job he's had since 1991.

“When they say life is sacred, he acts like every day as sacred,” said Chad Dahlen, principal at the Twin Buttes School. “For me, it's like that to be with him every day.”

Benson ended his formal education before the eighth grade. He now attends the Congregational Church in Twin Buttes in the same building where he went to school. The building was moved to its present location after the federal government flooded the old school site near Benson's childhood home.

He was about 20 when Corps of Engineers surveyors rode around on horses and in Jeeps in the Little Missouri community, plotting the floodwaters' course for the Garrison Dam. Ultimately, about 90 percent of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara families on the Fort Berthold had to relocate and leave behind their houses along the rich Missouri River bottomlands.

“I still cry every time I go back down in that area,” said Benson. “It's kind of hard. I can't help but cry now.”

Even though the floodwaters washed away tribal communities and sacred sites, the memories and traditions remained with elders like Benson. He's widely noted for retaining a clear, sharp memory of the customs and language of the Nu'eta, which means “We the People.”

“Uncle Edwin Benson provides hope to the many of us praying that the Mandan language will continue,” said Alyce Spotted Bear, vice president for indigenous studies at Fort Berthold Community College. “He, more than any books, classes or other educational venues, taught me the meaning of the phrase, ‘The culture is in the language.' He, above all others, holds the key to the concepts which exist behind the words in Mandan. He is a living treasure.”

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara languages are taught at Fort Berthold Community College, which was awarded a one-year National Science Foundation grant to document the Mandan language.

Spotted Bear said her goal is to establish an endowment and foundation for the Nu'eta, a famed agricultural tribe that lived in earth lodge villages along the Missouri River and its tributaries. The Nu'eta villages once served as a vast central marketplace for all trade on the Great Plains.

Many people are familiar with the Mandan through the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorers who spent six months wintering near the Nu'eta villages in the winter of 1805. The tribe is also captured in famed paintings by Karl Bodmer and George Catlin.

Early contact with traders exposed the Nu'eta to crippling disease. Two devastating smallpox outbreaks nearly wiped the tribe out, the last epidemic occurring in 1837. Thousands of Mandan died, reducing the tribe to about 125 people.

Twin Buttes remains the reservation community for the Nu'eta, which was home to Mattie Grinnell, the last full-blood Mandan. She lived to 108. Her death in 1975 led to misinformed reports that the Mandan tribe was extinct, a myth perpetuated in academic books before her death.

The Mandans did survive, leaving about half of the 12,000 Three Affiliated Tribes citizens to claim Mandan bloodlines.

Benson may be one of the last fluent speakers, but he is not alone. A cadre of people around the country, including tribal citizens, academic scholars and conversational speakers, has been working with the elder to revitalize the language.

Cory Spotted Bear was first selected to work with Benson in 1998 as part of a master-apprentice program. “He's the last of his kind, of the so many thousands of Mandans that were in this area, it has come down to this - one speaker, one man standing that knows the Mandan language as the first language,” said Spotted Bear.

He has been working daily with Benson and now says his grasp of the Nu'eta language is starting to “snowball.”

Meanwhile, Benson has long shared his knowledge of the Mandan with a large immediate and extended family; albeit, many of them didn't learn to speak Mandan.

“When we were small, we were always running around and listening to our mothers talk,” said Ben Benson, a nephew to Edwin. “We spoke it when we were younger. And then we went to school in Halliday, we lost it. We never utiltized it. We were trying so hard to adapt being with the white kids.”

Benson, who now lives in Minnesota, said his Nu'eta elders began to speak less and less Mandan after their lands were flooded and they had to move closer to white people. “They were more willing to practice English than speaking their language,” he said. “They were happy that we were speaking English so they had somebody to practice on.”

Nobody could have predicted the language might end with his uncle Edwin.

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