Skabewis (Paul DeMain)
Special to Indian Country Today
He was affectionately known simply as “Eddie” to almost everybody. For his family and those close to him, it was “DeDey,” the family father. A few people even called him Burt Reynolds.
But the traditional names he carried brought with them the essence of spiritual authority arising from over a century earlier. His given English name was Edward Joseph Benton, born in a woodland wigwam on the shores of Round Lake on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin, on March 4, 1931, according to the family obituary. Benton often said he did not have a birth certificate and that his actual age could easily be in dispute.
At 89 then, Benton passed away peacefully at a local care-giving facility on Nov. 30, with a legacy of involvement in the Indigenous world and a pillar of the revival and rebirth of the traditional Indian identity. In the last couple of years, Benton had faced several health issues courageously, but continued his work.
Edward Benton-Banai was born Bawdwaywidun Benaisee, “The Sounding Out of a Thunderbird” in the old Ojibway Indian Village of Round Lake.
The Ojbwe language in its written English form went through a century of evolution that reflected the similar path of Benton, a period of loss, of rediscovery and standardization while being revitalized. Even the word Benaisee, the Ojibwe word for a spiritual being, might be found written alongside his English name as Benasie, Benaisi, or Benasi.
Benton worked with and through it all as Great Lakes Ojibwe speakers standardized their written forms, sometimes fasting to see or hear the language he grew up around as a child.
Benton was a member of the Fish Clan, an Ojibwe Anishinabe born into a family steeped in Chippewa traditions, Midewin Lodge and deep woodland culture.
A First Speaker of the Ojibwe language, Benton said he was about 7 when he came to understand that others were speaking English outside his forested village community. And he said he never really cared for the English language, or the pilgrims that brought it with them in 1492.
Born without a birth certificate, Benton was the son of Awnikoogahbowiquay (Nancy Hart-Benton) and JingoGeezhig (Joseph Benton). He was raised in part by his stepfather, Osawa Benasi (John Barber), and grandfather William Hart, an 8th degree Mide priest. His namesake, or wa’aa, was John Mink, the man who gave him his Ojibwe name, and was known as Zhooniyageeshig, or Silver Streaking in the Sky, a name bestowed and reflecting a spiritual relationship with the heavens.
Benton worked as a Skabewis or a Messenger/Helper and mentor to the late John Stone, James “Pipe” Mustache, William Webster and Archy Mosay. They were all men well known as Midewin practitioners in the Great Lakes region. As a young boy, Benton was subject to a stringent ceremonial upbringing, fasting as a young child and being relied upon by some elders to remember songs and procedures of the Medicine lodge.
In turn, Bento-Banai was instrumental in instructing numerous Skabewisug, or mentors, during his years holding the annual and sub-annual lodge dances in the spring and fall that hundreds from the United States and Canada attended. It was not uncommon to find domestic and foreign visitors, non-mide members sitting outside their lodge on the shores of Lake Superior, observing those healing and celebratory events that were going on in the lodge, and open to the public to see.
But not all ceremonies and knowledge in the lodge was ever open to the public, surviving in part because of Benton, who sheltered and nourished the language, the prayers, the songs, the sequences, the hope and the responsibilities, to the earth, the body, soul and spirit.
Claiming more then 40 years of working in Indian education, Benton said he first started school at the age of 9 at local reservation facilities, trading suspensions and jokes about the Sisters, for several transfers and eventual off-reservation deportation to Hayward area schools.
As a young man Benton recites jumping from airplanes during his army service in Korea, and after, a stint in Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison, where he met Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks, and is credited with founding an Indigenous culture inmate group. It was relationships formed at Stillwater that Benton took a call as an Ironworker in Illinois years later to return to Minnesota and help found the American Indian Movement in 1968. He was certainly considered part of the spiritual foundation of the movement working with the likes of the late Porky White, Archy Mosay and Cody Enoch to provide spiritual guidance to the larger Native community of the Twin Cities.
Benton took part in numerous actions protesting police brutality in the Twin Cities, and you could find him involved in just about every AIM action from the occupation of the Winter Dam at his home reservation in northern, Wisconsin, to the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation in South Dakota, the Wisconsin Walleye Wars of the '80s and numerous other affirmative Indigenous actions, throughout the world. He was involved in educational curriculum development, providing instrumental support in the establishment of the International Indian Treaty Council and lending a hand in anything call powwow. He was a dancer, a singer and even a little bit of a clown.
Benton was involved with the revival of ceremonial and cultural activities throughout his tenure. He was a Master of Ceremonies at Pow wows like the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe’s Honor The Earth, named and established shortly after the Winter Dam protests.
From 1972 to his passing he had served as a director or superintendent at the Red School House in St. Paul, Minnesota, (a charter school Benton founded), the St. Paul AIM Center, Heart of the Earth Survival School, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Tribal School System and most recently at Shingwauk University in Ontario, Canada, where he served as a dean of academic and spiritual advice. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Minnesota, and a master's from California Western.
In 2015, Benton was granted the Doctorate of Indigenous Philosophy for his successful completion of the Andaa Wiinjigewin program at Seven Generations Institute and was also recognized with the Degree of Meritorious Doctor of Indigenous Studies for Meritorious Service as an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper by the Worlds Indigenous Nations University.
Among books and papers he authored, “The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway” was his most important contribution to saving a simple modernized written record of the stories off ancient scrolls he had read as a child. The book, organized as a teaching tool for elementary and middle aged school children went on to be used more often in University curriculum for Native and Religious studies through-out the world.
Benton was a member of the local Chidaywagun — the Big Drum Society — and recognized among members of the Three Fires Midewin Lodge as their Grand Chief, who presided over ceremonies of all types from naming to funerals rites.
The number of namesakes is in the hundreds, the number of ceremonies uncountable. With the offering of tobacco, Benton would answer the call for advice, procedure and conduct that covered the human experience. His teachings can be found in sweat lodges, architecture, artwork, song and dance across the continent. He was known as a dedicated partisan Democrat with a ruthless penchant to tease and joked about both the political and social order of everything, admonishing politicians, religious leaders and educators alike for their lack of genuine knowledge of all things Native.
A practitioner of traditional medicines, Native foods and religious instruction, advice, human error, a master of ceremonies, grandfather, father and uncle to many, Benton’s indelible imprint as one of the last of his class of human vessels holding ancient language and teachings before the “Time of the Quickening” came upon us.
He was called home on the full moon of Nov. 30, 2020.
Benton’s speaking presence can be found in audio and video files at Youtube and other online web resources. Here are two links:
Skabewis is the Ojibwe spiritual name for Paul DeMain, similar to the name that helpers in the Midewin Lodge are named too or entitled to carry. Skabewis assisted Benton-Banai off and on over the years on occasions Benton conducted ceremonies for his friends and relatives. DeMain, is a former president of the Native American Journalists Association.