The death of Edwin Benson, of Twin Buttes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in west-central North Dakota, who was the last living soul who could fluently speak Mandan could bring the possible extinction of a language that expressed the unique experiences and perceptions of a once-thriving tribe of Plains Indians.
Benson died Friday at age 85.
A wake was held at Twin Buttes Monday, a night of frigid cold outside, where the tradition of honoring the deceased with beautiful star quilts and woolen blankets was warm in remembrance.
The solitary coffin at the front of the hall — bedecked with elaborate headdresses and flower arrangements — held so much more than the mortal remains of a man. It contained all the diversity that a language adds to the world and for that, most especially, Three Affiliated Tribes councilman Cory Spotted Bear came to express his regrets at Benson’s passing.
“The world we live in becomes less. The language is the way the Mandan see the world,” Spotted Bear said.
Spotted Bear has been behind efforts to preserve Nu’eta, the proper word for Mandan, not only through his earlier work with Benson and personal graduate work in linguistics, but through a two-year, $1 million project funded by the tribe to document and collate all known records of the language.
Read more: West Central Tribune