Last known fluent Mandan speaker honored

Twin Buttes, North Dakota (AP) 10-08

Students at the Twin Buttes school have honored their longtime teacher with the words he taught them.

Students, parents and community members celebrated Edwin Benson’s 77th birthday in a ceremony of gifts and food. The man known as “Grandpa Benson” plans to cut back is work at the school from full time to a few hours a day.

One by one, the elementary students came to the microphone to say a word or a phrase in the Mandan language.

Benson, believed to be last person to speak the language fluently, is sought out by linguists from around the world. But his most important work has been on the Fort Berthold Reservation at the Twin Buttes school, where he has taught words and stories for 16 years.

“He’s a pretty cool guy,” said 5-year-old Roy Morsette. “He plays bingo with us.”

Benson used the game to show the same word in English and Mandan.

Tiffany Weigum, the kindergarten teacher, said the children love to see him in their classroom.

Cory Spotted Bear, a language apprentice, is working for the Twin Buttes community council on a Mandan language initiative. He works with Benson to preserve the language, getting as much taped, digitized and memorized as he can.

“It’s like the reservation – it’s not what we’ve been given, but what hasn’t yet been taken away. It’s the same with language,” he said.

Benson said most people at the community center could, at best, speak a word or two of Mandan.

“The language really got lost when we couldn’t speak it at school, until we got on the playground and we could use it on the sneak,” Benson said.

He knows the history of the Mandan. He remembers when the Missouri River was flooded in the 1950s to make way for the Garrison Dam and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people were forced off the river and the nearby towns to the reservation.

“When I was young, sadness never bothered me so much, until the dam came,” Benson said. “We were forced out and I lost my language. I can’t use it. That’s my sadness in my life and I’ll never get over that loss.”