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Twice upon a time

Ben Benson's stories from the exotic past were the favorite form of entertainment during Edwin Benson's childhood. The children of his extended family would gather at their grandfather's feet for story time two or three times a week. "The childre...

Ben Benson's stories from the exotic past were the favorite form of entertainment during Edwin Benson's childhood.

The children of his extended family would gather at their grandfather's feet for story time two or three times a week.

"The children wanted to hear stories," Benson said. "Of course, back then there was no TV or radio. There was nothing to do but listen to grandfather tell stories."

To show their respect and appreciation, the children would give Ben Benson corn balls, a traditional gift for a storyteller, made of corn and dried ground meat.

As a boy, Edwin was made to understand that the stories were real, that they passed along truths about where the Mandan came from, who they were, and their relationship with the animals.

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"They are important to native people, to say that this is the way it was," he said. "It was a real thing, it's not a make-believe story."

Now, in an echo of the past, Benson is retelling stories once told by his grandfather. In Mandan, he is narrating stories collected in English by a folklorist before he was born. Ben Benson told the stories to Martha Warren Beckwith of Vassar College, who visited Fort Berthold from 1929 to 1932. Unlikely savior: Vassar prof recorded tales of disappearing culture

The idea to have Edwin Benson retell the stories came from Calvin Grinnell, a cultural preservation researcher for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. Grinnell came across a volume of Beckwith's published stories while combing the special collections in the library at Minot State University.

Joseph Jastrzembski, a history professor at the university, is helping with the project, and plans to provide English subtitles on the videotaped stories, along with text translations.

Before starting the retranslation mission, the collaborators agreed on certain ground rules. They would restrict themselves to telling stories that were secular, rather than sacred, and therefore considered unsuitable for non-tribal members.

And the stories would be told during traditional storytelling months, between the winter and summer solstices. The Mandan believed telling stories in the warmer months might invite the spirits' anger.

"The spirits don't like to be talked about, like we're gossiping about them," Grinnell said. "They take offense."

That might result in a punishing winter, with brutal cold and deep snow. So, as in the old days, when the days started growing longer, the story retranslation project would hibernate.

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The first stories were told in Jastrzembski's university office, but Benson was stiff in the unfamiliar surroundings. Later they experimented with a studio at Minot State, but that location also seemed artificial.

Then they had an inspiration: the earth lodge at the Knife River Indian Village near Stanton, N.D., would provide a natural setting. They got permission from the National Park Service to use the replica lodge, and the agency became a partner in the project.

The surroundings helped put Benson at ease. For brief spells while telling his stories, the act of speaking his native tongue transports Benson back to his youth, to life on the river bottom, when he was called Ma-doke-wa-des-she, Iron Bison.

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