Just about everyone under the age of 50 has fond childhood memories of the Berenstain Bears. For decades, they have dominated children’s story hours in schools, libraries and homes. Over 260 of the books have been published in 20 different languages, and the Bear family has also made the leap from print to TV multiple times.
Now, the Bears are adding yet another language to their repertoire: the Native American dialect of Lakota. Spoken by the Lakota Sioux Nation, there are about 6,000 native speakers. While it’s stronger than many Native American languages, UNESCO still lists the Sioux language as a whole as “vulnerable.” As with other Native American groups, there is a generation of Lakota who were forcibly discouraged from speaking their own language as children. As tribe member Kenny Little Thunder told the Associated Press , “You couldn’t speak your language _ you were hit. They beat the language out of you.”
When it comes to protecting a language, children really are the future. Per Wikipedia, a language can have tens of thousands of speakers, but if children aren’t speaking it now, it’s classified as “moribund.”
Lakota elders hope that “Matho Waunsila Thiwahe,” the Lakota version of the Berenstain Bear’s cartoon series, will encourage Lakota children to take the language to heart. Lakota Language Consortium executive director Wilhelm Meya told the AP that “The bears are doing their part to save a language. Kids love cartoons. This is a great way to reach them to engage them in the language in a fun and yet educational way.”
So far, reaction from the tribe’s children seems to be positive; Chad Morsette Jr, age 10, said
“It’s pretty good. Awesome, really. I think a lot of kids are going to like it.”
The Lakota dialogue was voiced by Lakota tribe members familiar with the language and dubbed over the existing animated series. Naomi Last Horse, who did the voice-over for Brother Bear, noted that the way the Lakota language is structured made playing a boy quite challenging:
“I thought it was funny at first but then I also know that Bart Simpson is played by a girl so that kind of gave me motivation at first. I was like, `no, boys and girls they have different endings.` So I had to say yello instead of ya like a female would so it was fun translating over.”
A story in Time Magazine notes that Jan Berenstain, who still writes new books for the series, has waived the normal licensing fees for the tribe. You can watch the trailer on YouTube below.