Berenstain Bears Reconnect Sioux To Native Language

After teaching children life lessons for nearly five decades through their books and recent TV series, the bears are now helping revive the American Indian tribal language of Lakota. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses Lakota with Sunshine Archambault-Carlow of the Standing Rock Sioux, a reservation in North and South Dakota.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: In a big treehouse down a sunny dirt road deep in bear country live the Berenstain Bears - you know them. Mama Bear, Papa, Brother, Sister and Honey Bear. Chances are you know the story of the Berenstain Bears because with more than 100 book titles and a television series, the Berenstain Bears have been teaching children moral lessons for nearly 50 years.

They tackle lessons about doing chores, not talking to strangers, going to bed on time. Now, they're being used to help the American Sioux reconnect with their native language, Lakota. Let's have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE BERENSTAIN BEARS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LYDEN: Now, if you didn't understand that, not to worry. And here to talk with us about the Lakota language and the role of the Berenstain Bears is Sunshine Archambault-Carlow. She's the education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which is located in both North and South Dakota.

Welcome to the program.

SUNSHINE ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: So first, I have to know, I love the way this sounds. What did we just hear Brother Bear and Grandpa Bear discuss?

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: That was a clip from the episode "Trouble at School," and so basically, Brother Bear has been not going to school because he was out sick and didn't do his homework and Grandpa Bear is talking to him about a wagon that he got stuck in the mud because he didn't ask for help before it was too soon before - so kind of the lesson of the story is clip that you just heard.

LYDEN: Why use the Berenstain Bears to revive the Lakota language?

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: Well, for one, the project itself came out from a request from our community activists and our elders and fluent speakers to compete with kind of the cartoons that are out there and, you know, we have English everywhere we look and our Lakota language is struggling and so to give us an option to have Lakota in our homes and just the Berenstain Bears themselves is a cartoon that is really family-oriented. It has, just like you heard, the lesson - inter-generational lessons and it shows some of the struggles that we have in modern day and so it's an absolute gem when it comes to being able to use our language in a modern context.

LYDEN: What are Lakota children saying about it?

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: I can speak for my own. It's exciting for them to be able to hear Lakota all the time. I'm not a fluent speaker and we didn't speak Lakota in our home. Our families just can't get enough. Everybody is just excited about the bears and the potential to learn our language through them.

LYDEN: Sunshine, did you approach producers of the Berenstain Bears or did they approach you?

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: Actually, the project itself, Lakota Berenstain Bears Project, is a collaborative between the Lakota Language Consortium and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Thinking and looking at the Berenstain Bears and the audience that they reach, we were overjoyed when we found out that they would be willing - that Berenstain would be willing to give us educational rights to the series to promote our language and we look at reaching children in North Dakota, South Dakota, Canada, Minnesota. You know, the borders of our states will have the opportunity to be touched by Berenstain Bears in Lakota as a result of this project.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jackie Lyden. We're talking about efforts to revive Lakota, a Native American dialect of the Sioux. My guess is Sunshine Archambault-Carlow. She's the education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

Let's talk a little bit about the Lakota language. How many people speak it today and what happened to cause it to fade away?

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: Well, there's fewer than 10 percent of the Lakota speaking tribes that our populations speak our language. Our tribe holds to that estimation where we have about 5,000 people who live on the Standing Rock Sioux tribe reservation and roughly 10 percent of us have a range of fluency.

LYDEN: If so few people speak it, do you feel that perhaps it's almost too late for this program to have an influence?

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: No, I don't. Even though there are so few fluent speakers, the passion is there for our Lakota language, the desire, the yearning for it. And our language wasn't something that we stopped speaking by choice, it was more by force. And my generation - I'm 32 years old and I'm a mother of four - is a generation that wants the Lakota language for my children. My parents didn't speak Lakota because their parents spoke Lakota and they were forced to not speak Lakota when they entered school and punished for it.

And I, as a mother and as a child growing up on the Standing Rock and the Pine Ridge reservations, my grandparents spoke and when I hear the language, I don't have those feelings of pain or hurt. It's only love and it's only a desire to know my language, to want it, to reconnect with my family and so that's kind of where we're at now. It was a time of healing and we still have a lot of people that hurt from those memories, but we don't have those feelings as this next generation and we want the language for our children.

LYDEN: Sunshine, when you hear the cartoon characters speaking this language now, what comes to your mind? I mean, it must really be fun for you and, as you said, profound at the same time.

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: It's amazing. It aired on PBS on Sunday, September 11th, and I was in a hotel room in Bismarck, North Dakota, watching the Lakota Berenstain Bears on my TV in my hotel room and that means everybody else staying in that small city had access to that cartoon and it was - I was overwhelmed. It gave me such pride and joy and the opportunities for not just our people to learn our language, but for others to be exposed and to appreciate the language of the Dakotas - North and South Dakota - for thousands of years and so it's just beautiful to me. It's a work of art for me.

LYDEN: Is it hard to learn, would you say, Lakota?

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: I am a second language learner of the language and, surprisingly, I would say it's probably half as difficult as learning English. And part of it is, you know, we have a Lakota alphabet that we use in our schools and reading and writing is a major component of my language learning and the letters always make the same sound. So you see an A in Lakota, an ah, and it makes the same sound every time - this is not the case in English. And so I can read my language, even though I don't always know what I'm saying. I can figure it out from the patterns. You know, there are patterns, just as in English.

It's the time that you want to put into it and I always say, if something is important to you then you'll make time for it, and so that's the challenge that I give to my people and to other people that are not Lakota to learning, not just Lakota, but a second language.

LYDEN: Sunshine Archambault-Carlow is the education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and she joined us from Prairie Public Broadcasting in Bismarck, North Dakota. (Foreign language spoken), Sunshine.

ARCHAMBAULT-CARLOW: (Foreign language spoken).

LYDEN: And we're not going to leave you without a little bit of theme music for the Berenstain Bears in Lakota.

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