Young Linguist Goes Mandan


Mandan Phonology instructor Ryan Kasak is a former student of MHASI instructor John Boyle at Northeastern Illinois University (Kasak is now a PhD student in linguistics at Yale, and Boyle has moved on to be Executive Director of the Crow Nation‘s Apsaalooke Curriculum Project). Kasak said his introduction to the Mandan language in Boyle’s class at NEIU “was unlike any language-related class I’d taken before. We were given a dictionary, a grammar and some texts, and were told, ‘Let’s find out what we can learn about this language.’” Discovering Mandan in such a hands-on way steered Kasak in a new direction, and he has put Mandan at the center of his linguistic research ever since – examining how it is similar to or distinct from other languages around the world.

Kasak taught Level 1 Teaching Methods as well as phonology at MHASI.  “We all wished [the Institute] could have lasted longer,” he said.  A longer Institute would have “intensive classes to build vocabulary and confidence in the language – that is definitely a goal.”

Kasak has been spending time in North Dakota before and now after the MHASI, doing fieldwork recording and verifying Mandan words and phrases as a preparation for work on the Level 2 textbook – and he has already helped Mandan linguistics advance.

“All this time we thought there was only one speaker left,” he said, “but you find elders who grew up speaking it and you talk to them, stuff comes back to them.  There is definitely work to be done!”

Mandan elder Edwin Benson has long been respected as the last living speaker of Mandan as a first language, and has devoted his life to preserving and teaching both Mandan and Hidatsa languages and cultures.

So will Ryan Kasak return to MHASI next year?  “As long as they’ll have me, I will be had,” he said.

About the Author