To close out our recognition of Native American Heritage Month, we share this wonderful interview from Eileen Omizo-Whittenberg, graphic and visual designer for the College of Pharmacy, of her stepfather, Norman Benson. The conversation seeks to address some of the misconceptions Norman has encountered in his life. Our thanks to them both for sharing this honest and insightful conversation.
Norman Benson was born on the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota. He is a member of the three affiliated tribes: Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. He is Mandan. Although Mandan is the name that was documented by the US government, the actual name is Neu-ta. His uncle Edwin Benson—the man who raised him—was the last fluent Mandan speaker. Edwin’s first languages were Mandan and Hidatsa, and he was given an honorary doctorate degree from the University of North Dakota for his expertise in Mandan language and culture. While much was lost with Edwin’s passing, there is work being done to preserve and teach the language to children and adults alike.
Norman is an U.S. Army veteran who has been an addiction counselor, public speaker, and a teacher of Indian Education for Saint Paul public schools. He also provides cultural education for workforce training for a variety of institutions.
He is my stepfather and has served as a role model for me for 33 years. I thought it would be interesting to do a Q and A with Norman to discuss some of the more frequent misconceptions he’s encountered from audiences during his speaking events:
Do American Indians still live in teepees?
A lot of inner-city kids in the school system asked the teachers this question for a staff development training, and they in turn asked me. My response was to first thank them for addressing that question, but I said one of the things they might want to emphasize is that this is the twenty-first century. We live in houses with running water, electricity, plumbing and all this stuff. Of course, that’s not always true because there are a lot of Indians who live in poverty, but that is another topic. The idea that we live in teepees is the result of people not being properly educated about Indian life and culture. Most people are only able to learn from what they see on TV or movies and aren’t given the full scope to have an understanding about cultural differences.
The truth is every tribe is different, not only the kinds of homes they build, but their songs, and their creation stories, among many other differences.
I grew up in a log home and traditionally the Mandan built earth lodges.
Certain times of the year, from June to August/September they have what they call a powwow. People do live in teepees, and they set them up, but when you set up a teepee, one of the ways I was told is that you’ve got to feed people. You’re welcoming people. So that does happen, at certain times of the year.
But today is the twenty-first century. We have windows, we have furniture, etc. I would say that yes, that is a good question, but some people aren’t educated to know that life has changed for Indians as well as everyone else.
What are Earth lodges?
Earth lodges were original to the Mandan nation – they built them along the Missouri river. It was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were (and are) made of earth and sticks—Mother Nature.
On to question two: Do all American Indians get money from casinos? Are all Indians rich?
That’s another big misconception. Yes, we have casinos on the reservations, but if you are in a populated area, you have more revenue coming in. In less-populated areas, casinos tend to be more damaging because everybody is going to come and give their last and if they don’t hit then they are without. So, it hurts a lot of people too. But the idea that everybody’s got casino money is just false.
Now what you see today, in the state of Minnesota, you’ve got Mystic Lake, Treasure Island, Hinkley. Because of the population of this area, they make out very well. But you go out to rural North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, you don’t have that revenue.
So, it really depends on what tribe you are a member of?
Exactly, yes. In some cases, whatever money goes out is just operational, nobody really gets anything. Like the casino where I’m from, they don’t have a large population. They just make enough revenue to pay their employees.
The last question is, do Native Americans pay taxes?
That’s a good question. My first response to that is, why would we pay taxes? Because this country was ours to begin with. To really answer a fairer question about that, why would you pay for something that’s already yours? People try to get argumentative about that, but the point is there. So, when the western European came to this country, they seen what was here, you know, and they started breaking us all up, eliminating us, you know. To disease, alcoholism, they threw it at us, and Indian people were forced onto reservations. The goal was to get all Indians together in one state — Oklahoma was supposed to have been the state they wanted to put all the Indians, but it didn’t work out.
So, the real answer is that we have our own tribal sovereignty on the reservations. Anything that happens on the reservation we don’t pay a tax to. But if you live off the reservation—like I live out here (Twin Cities)—I have to pay taxes. But if I was back there (Fort Berthold), I wouldn’t have to pay a tax. If I was to get a hunting license here in Minnesota, which I am going to be doing this week, I have to pay a large amount of money to get that license. On my home reservation I don’t have to pay for a license.
Wow, that’s a big misconception. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would add that when I would give presentations, people would ask, ‘Is your name Norman Benson?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, that’s my given name. My Indian name is Shehek Xot. That means Grey Coyote. That name was given to me at my birth because I was born at home—in a log house—and when my grandfather first heard my voice, my cry, he said I sounded like a grey coyote. Shehek Xot. So, that’s my Indian name.’
That's your mother’s father then?
Yes. My mother’s father.
Did your mother grow up speaking Mandan too?
So, was that your first language as well?
Yeah. It got taken away in boarding school, and all that stuff went by the wayside. Some of it I know. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I’m asked by my son, ‘How do you say this?’ And sometimes I know, but sometimes I have to be reminded by something close to, and it comes back. But automatically I don’t have that concept anymore.
Even though celebrating native heritage is something we do every day, can I ask what is the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of celebrating your culture?
Today, as a sober person that’s been in sobriety a long time, I feel proud to be an American Indian. In my early years of life, I didn’t feel that. Because you were put down for saying something in Indian you know, and that was meant to make us feel ashamed of who we are. But today, I don’t have that problem. I’ll stand up and say something.
Thank you for taking the time to share with us, Shehek Xot /Norman.
We acknowledge the past and present contributions of indigenous peoples to the United States. These contributions to our everyday lives have been and remain vast, but also often go understated. A number of resources have been curated for individuals to continue building greater awareness and more-frequent consideration of indigenous culture in the everyday.