Leaving a linguistic legacy
Twin Buttes, N.D. — The art of capturing words spoken in a language threatened with extinction, and putting them in writing so they can achieve immortality in print, is work best done while nibbling brain food.
Or at least Edwin Benson and Sara Trechter have found that it's nice to be able to munch on blueberries and carrot sticks while he speaks in Mandan and she jots down his words.
Mandan, the language spoken by the tribe famous for hosting Lewis and Clark during the explorers' winter encampment in North Dakota, hangs by a linguistic thread that frays a little more as each year slips by.
Benson, a 75-year-old horse rancher, is the strongest strand left in that thread. Experts regard him as the only fluent speaker of Mandan still alive.
So for the past three summers, working for six hours at a stretch, Trechter and Benson have camped out in a small office, where he speaks his deep, rumbling voice into a microphone on his desk, and she scribbles notes on a yellow legal pad.
The two recently reached an important milestone. They finished transcribing the last of seven Mandan folk stories Benson told for posterity, recorded several years ago on digital videotape.
Trechter, a linguist who specializes in Siouan American Indian languages, has made these perennial summer pilgrimages from Chico, a college town in northern California, where she teaches at a state university.
Their work is strenuous but sedentary, filled with painstaking repetition to ensure accuracy. Hence the snacks, and lots of bottled water - all that talking works up a thirst.
As if summoning the past, Benson often leans back in his chair, closing his eyes in concentration while he gropes for the right word, either in Mandan or to find its counterpart in English.
Although Mandan was his first language, he seldom has a chance to use it in conversation. Occasionally he speaks with his 82-year-old sister, who lives more than an hour away on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
But she never matched her brother's fluency. Benson, alone among his siblings, was raised by a grandfather who insisted on keeping alive Mandan traditions and language. Ben Benson forbade speaking English in his home, a log cabin near the mouth of the Little Missouri River.
These days, Trechter sometimes serves as Edwin Benson's conversational partner in Mandan, a language she acquired after branching out from Lakota Sioux, a linguistic cousin of Mandan, also a Siouan tongue.
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Trechter's mission to help rescue Mandan required her to master its linguistic quirks. She has learned, for example, that a bird is said to "stand" while flying but "sit" when perched on a tree.
And at times, she's had to accept that some words or phrases simply defy translation into another tongue. One instance came last week as she was about to wrap up her field work this summer.
She was transcribing a recording of Benson conducting a naming ceremony, a traditional practice still carried out on the reservation, when she ran up against a word that sounds, to the untrained ear, like "ay-posh."
"That word has a long history," she explained to a visitor. To supplement her transcription, the process of converting spoken Mandan into writing, she includes a version in English.
But maybe not with ay-posh. "It has no English translation," Trechter said. Still, because even an approximation might help, she offered her rough English equivalent, "I say."
Benson, who has been coaching Trechter as she transfers his words onto the page, took up the challenge.
"Wah-ha-noh-sh," he said in his sub-baritone, repeating the phrase in Mandan. "I am sounding it."
"I kind of give up," the linguist replied, smiling but flustered.
Benson takes another stab. "I'm echoing what I'm saying."
Then he, too, finally surrendered. "It's untranslatable."
'No finishing with Mandan'
Trechter first learned about efforts to preserve the Mandan language when visiting with her doctoral thesis adviser, a Siouan language expert at the University of Kansas.
He'd heard the project was looking for a linguist to join the team. She got in touch with the man who'd sent out a query over an Internet network for linguists in native languages asking whether anyone was interested.
That man is Calvin Grinnell, who works in the cultural preservation office of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation at Fort Berthold. In partnership with Joseph Jasztrembski, a history professor at Minot (N.D.) State University, he directs the Mandan language preservation project.
Their endeavor started seven years ago with a grant from the National Park Service, which paid to videotape Benson telling the folk stories at its Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Stanton, N.D., which features replicas of earth lodges used at the Mandan and Hidatsa villages that once dotted the area.
The project's ultimate goal is to produce learning materials for language labs on the reservation, ideally with the videotapes of Benson telling his stories in Mandan with 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. But things have moved along more quickly since Trechter joined the team in 2004, replacing a linguist who was unable to devote as much time because he was finishing his doctoral thesis, in Hidatsa.
One afternoon last week, as Benson and Trechter were winding up their work for the day, Grinnell and Jasztrembski stopped by to talk about where they should focus their future efforts. They crowded into the office Benson uses near Twin Buttes Elementary School, where he teaches Mandan.
Since finishing the last of the folk stories, Trechter and Benson have turned their attention to recording and transcribing Mandan social and cultural customs, such as the naming ceremony.
To find old Mandan names, Trechter went to the archives of the North Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Bismarck, and was pleasantly surprised by what she found.
"There's tons of stuff," she said. "Boxes and boxes of it," including a Mandan dictionary compiled in the 1970s and 1980s as well as manuscripts from the 1920s and 1930s, the work of earlier linguists now dead.
Grinnell, who said he thought the project now had a solid foundation for a language-learning program, asked whether they should record more old stories. That would be fine, Trechter replied, but she said it also would be good to help people who want to speak Mandan in social and cultural occasions.
"We've been doing things people should know how to say," she said, giving as an example a farewell poem traditionally spoken by the senior pallbearer at a Mandan funeral, one of their current pieces. Benson said he is unaware that anyone had previously recorded or written about Mandan burial rites.
Jasztrembski agreed that a proper balance must be struck in choosing what to preserve, given limited time and funding. Reviving a language takes many years, and progress is slow, much like restoring an endangered plant or animal species, he said.
"I think language revitalization is something like that," the historian said. "It takes a great deal of time to do."
At one point, as the discussion over what to tackle next continued, Trechter volunteered that she could record and transcribe dialogue with Benson.
"My pronunciation isn't great, but it's OK," she said. "We could talk back and forth."
Grinnell added that the tribal college archives has hours of tape recordings of elders from the 1970s that also might provide helpful material.
"There is no finishing with Mandan," Trechter said. At age 44, she's already seen enough material to keep her busy for the rest of her career and beyond. "It's ongoing as far as I'm concerned."
Sites, stories hold tribal importance
Without coming to any firm conclusion about their next step, the group left the confines of the office in Twin Buttes and drove to two nearby sites that hold cultural significance for the Mandan.
They stopped first by a grassy hillside, on top of which was a monument of seven large stones - the subjects of a legend Benson recently told Trechter, a tale they're considering transcribing.
Benson gave a brief version of the story, which involves a young boy who was left behind on a hunting trip because he overslept. Undeterred, he set out on his own and encountered a Sioux raiding party. The boy, who had the element of surprise, slayed all seven warriors.
Swollen with pride, the boy returned to his village and told about his adventure - and nobody believed him. Skeptics asked him to show them the bodies. He agreed, and when they reached the site, they found seven stones, not seven bodies.
From the hillcrest, Benson and the others walked down to a woody draw, the site of a Mandan shrine, relocated years ago because of the reservoir created by Garrison Dam. It consisted of four sides of wooden posts, all roughly shoulder-high, with a slightly shorter wooden pole in the center - representing Lone Man, who created humans, lakes and trees in the Mandan creation story.
A band of willow surrounded the four sides, representing the level of water in a flood from the time of creation.
Benson, who seems at times like a linguistic Lone Man, made a silent prayer, then dropped a cigarette as a tobacco offering. It landed inside the shrine, where other offerings lay scattered on the ground.
On the drive back to Twin Buttes, the party passed a country cemetery. Benson said his grandparents and other relatives were buried in the cemetery.
"I'm not ready for that," he added, chuckling.
"You better not," Trechter replied. "You have a lot of work to do."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522.