Mandan Speakers Ben and Edwin Benson
On this date in 1914, multiple newspapers reported that Ben Benson, also called Buffalo Head, visited Curator H. C. Fish at the State Historical Society of North Dakota to see a drawing of his father, Iron Eyes, which was on exhibit there.
While museums no longer encourage handling of artifacts in this way, reports of the visit say Fish took the picture down from exhibit, so Benson could look at it closely. Benson had come to view the image several times before, but this time, he brought his wife and children, and he talked to them for about an hour on the history of his father’s life. In a low tone and in the Indian language, he told of “the greatness of his father who was one of the big men in the Mandan tribe.”
Ben Benson was a link to a time of transition. He had been born in the late 1800s, perhaps in the 1860s, in Like-A-Fishhook village. This was within living memory, of the horrible smallpox outbreak that decimated the tribes in 1837. Eventually, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara teamed up, and by 1845, they had formed the community of Like-A-Fishhook together, across the river from Fort Clark. Today, this land lies under Lake Sakakawea, lost in the mid-1950s when the Garrison Dam was built.
Ben Benson provided another link to the past by raising his grandson, Edwin Benson. Edwin was the youngest of five children and was one year old when his mother passed away. Only Mandan was spoken in his grandfather’s home, so he didn’t encounter English until he attended school at age 7. Linguists would come to consider Edwin the last fluent speaker of Mandan as a first language.
When he was interviewed about this, Edwin frequently noted how lonely it was. While he was also fluent in Hidatsa and English, and knew some Lakota and Arikara, even his wife Annette couldn’t speak Mandan.
In 2009, the University of North Dakota awarded him an honorary doctorate degree. Edwin had become known for sharing his knowledge of Mandan language and culture, and was considered to be a “living encyclopedia” of the Three Affiliated Tribes. He was recorded several times over the years, speaking in Mandan to preserve the language.
Edwin passed away in 2016, but through the Benson line, left a Mandan legacy.
Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker
Grand Forks Daily Herald, December 3, 1914, p1
The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, December 3, 1914, p2
Dickinson Press, December 13, 2016
Bismarck Tribune, December 11, 2016
The Fargo Forum, September 14, 2003