BISMARCK, N.D. -- Papa Bear, Mama Bear and their cubs have helped children curb junk-food addictions and organize messy rooms for half a century. Now, from their tree house in idyllic Bear Country, the beloved Berenstain Bears are helping revive an endangered American Indian language.
Lakota for the "Compassionate Bear Family," the animated series "Matho Waunsila Thiwahe" is the first animated series ever translated into an American Indian language and began airing this week on public television in North Dakota and South Dakota. Twenty episodes of the Berenstain Bears were dubbed into the ancient language of the Sioux, whose tribal lands span both states, and will run weekly through 2011.
Disney's classic movie "Bambi" was dubbed in Arapaho in the mid-1990s to help preserve that language and culture, but never before has an animated series been translated to help children learn new words and phrasings with each episode, said Wilhelm Meya, executive director of Lakota Language Consortium.
Fewer than 6,000 of the 120,000 members of Sioux tribes, who often identify themselves as Lakota, speak the language or its less common but closely related Dakota dialects. The average age of a Lakota speaker is 60, he said.
"The bears are doing their part to save a language," said Meya, who is fluent in Lakota. "Kids love cartoons. This is a great way to reach them to engage them in the language in a fun and yet educational way."
About 500 languages existed in North America around the time Christopher Columbus came ashore, but only about one-fifth are still spoken, Meya said, estimating that fewer than 20 may survive. He said a language needs 100,000 speakers to maintain viability over the long term.
Meya's nonprofit, along with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and public broadcasting, produced the Lakota series and recorded it in Bismarck. Lakota speakers from reservations in the Dakotas provided the voices, and Berenstain Enterprises Inc. waived licensing fees for the project.
Jan Berenstain, who introduced the first Berenstain Bear books with her late husband, Stan, in 1962, said the Lakota project is important to help children learn the endangered language.
"I think it's terrific," said Berenstain, who at 88 continues to write and illustrate Berenstain Bears books from her studio in Pennsylvania. "We're very happy about it."
The humanlike honey-loving bear family and their furry friends have taught millions of children worldwide gentle life lessons, addressing subjects from bullying to the birds and the bees.
More than 260 million copies of Berenstain Bear books have been released in more than 20 languages, including Arabic and Chinese, said Mike Berenstain, who writes and illustrates books with his mother. And they were excited to add an American Indian language.
"We were delighted to cooperate in getting this done," he said.
Hundreds of children from tribes throughout the Great Plains got a sneak peek at the series last weekend at the United Tribes International Powwow in Bismarck. Costumed Berenstain Bear characters made their rounds, posing for pictures and shaking hands with wide-eyed children, many of them resplendent in traditional Sioux dress.
Ten-year-old Chad Morsette Jr. gave the cartoon a thumbs-up.
"It's pretty good. Awesome, really," said Morsette, who lives in Twin Buttes on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation. "I think a lot of kids are going to like it."
His grandmother, Maryann Morsette, said she speaks Lakota to her children and grandchildren as often as English. The cartoon, she said, should help children absorb Lakota even more.
"I think it will help make kids interested in the language," said Morsette, 57. "I am full-blooded Sioux, and quite of bit of elders speak the language but the kids don't. It has to be spoken every day in the home for it to take hold."
Voices for the characters came from about a dozen Lakota-speaking residents on the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in the Dakotas. There are about two dozen Sioux tribes in North America, with reservations also in Montana, Nebraska, Minnesota and Canada that "share many of the same stories and songs, but they do have slightly different histories."
Kenny Little Thunder and his wife, Bernadine, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, provided voices for several of the bear characters.
Kenny, 53, and Bernadine, 50, said they are among the youngest fluent Lakota speakers on the reservation. They said most of the children from their generation were punished for speaking their native language at school.
"You couldn't speak your language – you were hit," said Kenny Little Thunder, a former Marine. "They beat the language out of you."
Bernadine Little Thunder said there was a time when even Lakota children pressured others not to speak the language.
"This is important for our children," she said of learning the language. "I think it will help to realize that it is cool to be Lakota."
Sunshine Archambault-Carlow, education manager for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the lessons taught by the Berenstain Bears mirror Lakota values. Archambault-Carlow, 32, has been learning Lakota for the past four years and has immersed her three children because Lakota culture is embodied in the language.
"I don't see how they can exist without each other," she said.