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'Bears' speak Lakota: Cartoon aims to boost struggling language

"Berenstain Bears"

FARGO - The Berenstain Bears, a popular educational children's cartoon program on public television, soon will be speaking in the language of the Lakota Sioux.

Public television networks in North Dakota and South Dakota will begin broadcasting the Lakota Berenstain Bears episodes Sunday in an effort to help children learn the endangered language.

The Lakota episodes, also available online, will have their premiere showing tonight during a summit of tribal leaders at the United Tribes Technical College International Powwow in Bismarck.

The programs with Lakota dialogue were produced and will be broadcast in a partnership involving the Lakota Language Consortium, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Prairie Public and South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

The inspiration for the Lakota language version of the series came from a fluent speaker at Standing Rock, where the youngest known fluent Lakota speaker is 27 and most who are well-versed in the language are older than 55.

"We need something to get the language to our kids, our youth, our families," Sunshine Archambault-Carlow, education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said Wednesday.

At Standing Rock, a reservation that straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota, the tribe estimates 300 of its approximately 4,000 adult residents are fluent in Lakota or Dakota dialects, with perhaps 500 who can understand the language well - most of whom are middle-aged or elderly.

"That's the scary thing right now," Archambault-Carlow said. "We don't have any fluent children speakers. Our English is healthy. Our Lakota is struggling."

The popular Berenstain Bears series, which first aired on Public Broadcasting Service networks in 2003, was chosen because each episode teaches children an important life lesson that is compatible with Lakota culture, Archambault-Carlow said.

"It stood out to us," she said. "Each of their episodes teaches a value. It was just a nice fit."

Marie Offutt, director of communications for Prairie Public, said the North Dakota public broadcasting network readily agreed to broadcast the programs, which will air on its Digital 4 channel at 9 a.m. on Sundays beginning this week.

"It is very unique," she said of the Lakota dialogue for a public television program. "I'm very excited about it. I think it's a wonderful project."

Creators of the series, called Mathó Waúnsila Thiwáhe in Lakota, granted rights for two seasons of episodes to be broadcast. A companion teacher's guide and learning guides are in development.

Next, it would be a coup to get permission to do the same with a Hollywood movie, Archambault-Carlow said. "We definitely hope to continue the project," she said.