Rancher, linguist working to preserve Mandan language 8-07

TWIN BUTTES, N.D. (AP) - An effort to save the Mandan language may
rest on the shoulders of a 75-year-old horse rancher.

Experts believe Edwin Benson is the only person living who speaks
fluent Mandan, the language of the tribe that became
the host of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during the explorers'
winter encampment in North Dakota more than 200 years ago.
For past three summers, in six-hour shifts, Benson and California
linguist Sara Trechter have camped out in a small office so he can
speak into a microphone while Trechter takes notes. The two recently
finished transcribing seven Mandan folk stories.


Benson's grandfather insisted on keeping alive Mandan traditions and
language. Ben Benson forbid speaking English in his home, a log cabin
near the mouth of the Little Missouri River.

Trechter, who teaches at a university in Chico, Calif., learned about
efforts to preserve the Mandan language from her doctoral thesis
adviser, a Siouan language expert at the University of Kansas. She
got in touch with Calvin Grinnell, whoworks in the Mandan, Hidatsa
and Arikara cultural preservation office on North Dakota's Fort
Berthold reservation. Grinnell directs the language preservation
project with Joseph Jasztrembski, a history professor at Minot State

The effort started about seven years ago with a grant from the
National Park Service, which paid to videotape Benson telling folk
stories at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
near Stanton.

The project's goal is to produce material for language labs on the
reservation, ideally with the videotapes of Benson telling his
stories in Mandan and follow-along captions of Trechter's
transcriptions on the bottom of the screen.

Work has been slow, plagued at times by technical problems, sporadic
funding and busy schedules. Benson uses an office near the Twin
Buttes Elementary School, where he teaches Mandan.

Since finishing the folk stories, Trechter and Benson been recording
and transcribing Mandan social and cultural customs.

Trechter has had master some quirks of the language. She learned, for
example, that a bird is said to “stand” while flying but “sit”
when perched on a tree. She has found that some words or phrases
simply defy translation into another tongue.

In the archives of the North Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in
Bismarck, Trechter said she found “boxes and boxes” of material,
including a Mandan dictionary compiled in the 1970s and 1980s, and
manuscripts from the 1920s and 1930s.

Jasztrembski compared the work to restoring an endangered plant or
animal species.

“I think language revitalization is something like that,” he said.
“It takes a great deal of time to do.”

Grinnell said the tribal college archives has hours of tape
recordings of elders from the 1970s that might provide helpful

Trechter, 44, said she already seen enough material to keep her busy
for the rest of her career.

“There is no finishing with Mandan,” she said.


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