with Brian Bull
Loss is inevitable – whether it’s a childhood home, a favorite relative, even a traditional name.
Mandan-Hidatsa elder Edwin Benson says memories can restore people, places, and even a person’s cultural identity. On today’s Elder Wisdom, Brian Bull has more:
[Excerpt of Benson speaking Mandan language]
Edwin Benson is a survivor, and he helps the language, history, and culture of the Mandan-Hidatsa people survive as well. In his seventies, Benson has said goodbye to many people and things in his life. But he isn’t ready to bid farewell to his traditions, particularly his language. He visits school children and history buffs far from his home in Halliday, North Dakota. A short, stocky man with a love for horses and storytelling, Benson is regarded as one of the very last tribal members fluent in his native tongue:
Benson says it all started at home.
My grandfather was a full blood Mandan. He spoke the Mandan language. Later in years, he was able to speak both languages. So when my dad left at the home place, while the older sister and brother left for the boarding school, everything at home was all the Mandan language, or known as the Nu’itah language.
The translation of it is “one of us,” but then they translate it into English saying “We, the people.”
Life challenged Benson early on in his childhood. Between 1933 and 1939, he lost his mother, sister, and grandfather.
But even when things disappear, there are almost always traces. Footprints, echoes, and memories can connect a person back to a lost time, and Benson finds his thoughts going back a lot towards his grandfather.
Under the Beautiful Sky
All Mortal Flesh Be Silent
Lewis & Clark: Sounds of Discovery
Benson recalls how the missionary movement affected his grandfather’s traditions. One was a practice similar to today’s Sun Dance rituals, an intense prayer ceremony done every year by the Mandan. Participants pray for a plentiful supply of buffalo and for abundant rainfall to replenish the grass the herds depend on. Sometimes in response to a vision or dream, they pierce their chests or backs as part of the ceremony.
The Mandans had Okipinapa, similar to something like that. I seen scars on his back where he has pierced until the priest told him that they, he shouldn’t do that, you know. That Christ died on the cross for your sins and mine. So he changed his Indian spirituality into Christian life. And that’s kinda what he really stood to.
[Nakai flute with orchestral strings, out of “Fourth World” album]
Some of the things he said to me, “Someday people might ask you to do a prayer, or to call on you for something, anything. And you don’t turn them down. You want to do as much and help as much as you can. And I said, that’s why I say, some of the things he said, I still run onto them yet today.
Benson’s grandfather celebrated many parts of his culture and preserved them for his family. Benson shares a Mandan-Hidatsa legend about his people that his grandpa shared with him when he was a youngster:
There were two ladies out picking berries, young girls traveling down a path or a little trail or something. And they saw a porcupine sitting at the top of the tree there. And one of the girls says, “I want to go up there and take that porcupine down. We’ll ah, skin him out or cinch it, and then we’ll cook him up this evening.” The partner says, “Okay, go ahead.”
This girl went up the tree. She was really spry, like I said. And when she get up close to that porcupine, the tree would go a little bit longer and the porcupine was going up higher and higher.
And pretty soon that, the other partner said, looking way up there real high and said, “You’re getting too far up there.” She said, “You ought to let it go. You come back down.”
“No”, she said. “I’ve got a little bit more ways to go. I’ll be able to get it.”
Pretty soon, the girl and the porcupine in the tree, they went out of sight into the blue skies, clear out of sight. And then, she wound up in the high heavens. And there she met the sun and the moon. Well, she married the moon. And the girl she had a boy. And he would go out and hunt and bring in whatever the game was then.
And he took this young boy out, he was four or five years old, and he came to a rock. “Son,” he said. “You see that rock there?”
And he said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Don’t you move that. Don’t ever bother with that. I don’t want you touching that rock.”
He said, “All right?” He never paid much attention.
Then ah, they went on and he taught him how to shoot a bow and arrow and all that stuff. His dad left for hunting. And this little boy, like kids will do, he was naughty anyway. This little boy walked over to this rock. That’s the first place he went. And he grabbed this rock and he pulled it over. When he pulled that rock over, he could see what’s down here on earth. Deer, elk, all the wild game and people walking around, and he sees a very enjoyable. The trees and the rivers, and all. It was very nice. He pushed that rock back and he ran back to his mother.
Told his mother, he said, “Dad told me not to move that rock. So I wondered why, so I went and moved it.”
His mother said, “Why’d you move it? Well, what did you see when you moved that rock?”
He said, “It’s nice down there. There’s people there.”
“Son,” she said. “That’s where I come from. That’s where I belong. That’s where I’m, I’m from.”
And that little boy said, “Mother,” he says, “I want to go down there. Let’s go back to your people, to, down there to the earth.”
She said, “Okay, but,” she said, “You have to get, when your dad goes hunting, when he comes back you tell him you want to get sinew. Ask for the sinew. You want to do something with it. Don’t tell him what it’s for, though.”
So every time his dad would come back he’d take the sinew.
She said. “You take all that sinew to the spider, and they can make a long, you know they’re great for making webs, “You ask that spider to make a long string braided together, and it’ll reach to the earth. And then we’ll go from there, and we’ll go back down.”
“Now we’re ready. Let’s go,” she said. She packed him on his back and, on her back and they went down that rope. They went way down.
In the meantime, the father he come back from hunting. He said, “I told that boy not to, ah I better go check.” he said. Sure enough that rock was laying to one side. He said, “Yeah, exactly what they did.” He peeked and they were hanging way down there.
So that rock that they moved, this moon went and picked it up and he rubbed it, and made a trail for that rock to follow that rope all the way down. And he said, “You go hit that woman on the head. Don’t hit my boy, though. Don’t kill my boy, but you kill that woman.” So and that rock went down, slid, and hit the woman on the head, killed her and they dropped to the ground. And they say, actually that happened right down here, about seven miles down, downstream here. Now they use that as, a symbol of a naughty boy.
Benson wants people to find relevance and meaning in all things. He knows the power of memory, which keeps traditions alive through generations.
Today, Benson works with the University of North Dakota in preserving the Mandan language, one of the cultural treasures he shares with tribal children across the region. He hopes young people hang on to their customs, even as the world around them changes at a blurring pace.
For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Brian Bull.
Brian Bull is assistant news director for Wisconsin Public Radio, and is an enrolled member of the Nez Perce tribe. He lives with his wife, two kids, and three cats in Madison, Wisconsin.