DORREEN YELLOW BIRD: UND honors last fluent speaker of Mandan

Dorreen Yellow Bird
Dorreen Yellow Bird

NEW TOWN, N.D. -- At UND's 121st commencement ceremony on May 16, Edwin Benson, Mandan tribal elder, received an honorary doctor of letters degree.

Benson will now be added to the list of recipients of honorary degrees, a list that includes famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey and President John F. Kennedy. He was among some 1,500 men and women who received degrees from the university that day.

What's special about Benson is that he has a long history as a teacher. Notably, he spent his life working toward the preservation of the culture and language of the Mandan. He has lived that culture and is the only living Mandan who is fluent in the Mandan language.

As Benson reminded me, though, there are young tribal members who are working hard to learn this once-dying language and culture. Benson also teaches Mandan to elementary children at the Twin Buttes School in Twin Buttes, N.D.

I first worked with Benson some 20 years ago, when the Three Affiliated Tribes were putting the tribes' history in the curriculum of North Dakota schools. Each tribe -- the Mandan, Arikara (Sahnish) and Hidatsa -- was charged with developing its portion of the curriculum.


North Dakota tribal history should be from the tribes' perspective, state superintendent Wayne Sanstead said at the time.

It was a difficult task for the Three Affiliated Tribes.

One reason is that these tribes are not one, nor are we even in the same linguistic family (which is how historians categorize tribes).

The tribes came by different paths to Fort Berthold, N.D., where we're now located. Although the Mandan and Hidatsa are linguistically Siouxian, the Sahnish (Arikara) are Caddeon.

Over time, of course, the languages have come to have more similarities. This slow change is not unusual. It is part of the evolution of language. An old friend who is Hidatsa, Luther Grinnell, used to tell me many of the young Hidatsa today speak a somewhat different kind of Hidatsa -- different, that is, from the old Hidatsa, which he spoke and was familiar with.

So it is with cultures. They change and evolve, too. And in this world, where we can travel from one part of the nation to another in hours, we learn and even borrow from the cultures from other tribes. It is amazing also how alike many of our ceremonies and culture can be.

Well, during those several months where groups of elders and writers got together and put the history from our point of view in writing, Benson was the shining light for the Mandan. He seemed able to answer almost any question about the history, culture and language of the tribe.

He was amazingly patient, too. It's hard to imagine trying to get a consensus on parts of history as we remembered it because ours is an oral history -- and sometimes we all don't remember things the same.


But when Benson spoke, everyone listened.

I talked to Benson and one of four daughters, Mary Lynn Eaglestaff, during a reception hosted by the American Indian Student Center. Benson was touched when he got word that he was going to be honored by UND, Eaglestaff told me.

Benson had worked with the Smithsonian Institution and helped develop a Mandan dictionary, but this honor seemed to really touch his heart, she said. He had tears in his eyes when he told her about the honorary degree.

He also was very nervous about the ceremony, she added. I didn't notice any nervousness about him as I photographed him throughout his three days at Grand Forks.

Benson may be the only American Indian to have received an honorary degree from UND. He certainly is the first from the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Benson, 77, and his wife, Annette attended the ceremonies together. Benson has four daughters from a previous marriage.

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