The Berenstain Bears have helped children curb junk-food addictions and organize messy rooms for half a century. Now, from their treehouse in idyllic Bear Country, Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and their cubs are helping revive an endangered American Indian language.
They star in what is believed to be the first animated series ever translated into an American Indian language: “Mathó Waúnsila Thiwáhe,” which is Lakota for the “Compassionate Bear Family.” For the series, 20 episodes of the Berenstain Bears were dubbed into the ancient language of the Sioux. It began airing last week on public television in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Disney’s classic movie “Bambi” was dubbed in Arapaho in the mid-1990s to help preserve that language and culture, but the translated Berenstain Bears series is a new way to help children learn words and phrases with each episode, said Wilhelm Meya, the 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, and the average age of a speaker is 60, he said.
Mr. Meya’s nonprofit group, along with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and public broadcasting, produced the Lakota series with Lakota speakers from reservations in the Dakotas providing the voices. 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.
More than 260 million copies of Berenstain Bear books have been released in more than 20 languages, said Mike Berenstain, who writes and illustrates books with his mother.
Kenny Little Thunder and his wife, Bernadine, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, provided voices for several of the bear characters and said they are among the youngest fluent Lakota speakers on the reservation. Most of the children from their generation were punished for speaking their native language at school, they said.
“This is important for our children,” Bernadine Little Thunder said of learning the language. “I think it will help to realize that it is cool to be Lakota.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as Berenstain Bears Help Young Lakota Learn an Ancient Language