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
has been awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University
of North Dakota.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Mandans did survive, leaving about half of the 12,000 Three Affiliated
Tribes citizens to claim Mandan bloodlines.
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.
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.
has been working daily with Benson and now says his grasp of the
Nu'eta language is starting to snowball.
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.
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.
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
could have predicted the language might end with his uncle Edwin.