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Berenstain Bears Translated into Lakota Language Can Be a Game-Changer

A story about The Berenstain Bears cartoon being translated into the Lakota Indian language.

Check Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. EST for episodes of The Berenstain Bears. And don't be fooled by the cartoon: Adults of all ages will marvel at it.

Tune in to South Dakota Public Broadcasting Digital 3 channel in South Dakota or the Prairie Public Broadcasting Digital 4 channel in North Dakota on Sunday mornings at nine a.m. between now and the end of November, and you will see a unique program—a mainstream cartoon translated into a Native language. Math?ó Waú?šila Thiwáhe, or The Compassionate Bear Family, consists of 20 episodes of the world-famous Berenstain Bears animation series dubbed into Lakota. Created by Stan and Jan Berenstain 50 years ago, the series of stories featuring a family of bears has been translated into more than 20 languages, teaching life lessons on family relationships, caring, sharing and growing up.

The project began about 16 months ago, when elders from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asked the nonprofit Lakota Language Consortium (LLC), to do something that would take their efforts to revitalize the Lakota language to the next level. LLC executive director Wilhelm Meya and Standing Rock Sioux tribal education manager Sunshine Carlow came up with the idea of doing a cartoon. “We approached Berenstain Enterprises and asked if they would be interested in donating the rights to a Lakota-language adaptation of a Berenstain Bears animation,” Meya says. “They thought it was a fantastic project and gave us the rights to the series.

Several considerations went into the decision to use a mainstream cartoon to teach the Lakota language instead of a story indigenous to the culture. “For starters, there was cost,” Meya says. “To re-create a cartoon of that caliber would cost millions of dollar. Second, the Berenstain Bears are animals, not people, so they would not be seen as representing one culture over another.”

Another consideration was values. “The lessons in the Berenstain Bear stories matched Lakota values,” Meya says. Carlow, the mother of four, says that the setting and topics of the show also made the series an ideal candidate for this project. “The rich context the animation provides for language that would help viewers begin to ‘de-puzzle’ the language from the cartoons,” she explains. “The Berenstain Bears episodes reflect language spoken in everyday situations—in the kitchen, the schoolyard, at home. It is language in context, in the vernacular. That wouldn’t be the case in some other modern cartoons.”

With the rights in hand and a commitment from both the South Dakota and North Dakota public broadcasting systems to air the series, Meya and Carlow took the proposition to the tribe and got the go-ahead. The next step was to find the actors who would be the bears’ Lakota voices. Ben Black Bear, the voice of Papa Bear (Atkúku in Lakota), sits on the board of the consortium. He helped organize the project, produce a trial run, translate the dialogue into Lakota and dub a sample to help sell the idea. Black Bear is a member of the Rosewood Sioux Tribe and a Native speaker. He has taught the language for more than 30 years, starting at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, South Dakota in the 1970s and now as director of the Lakota Studies Program at the St. Francis Mission in St. Francis, South Dakota. He has translated the Gospel of St. Luke, is working on the Gospel of St. John, and was instrumental in developing a dictionary of the Lakota language published in 2008.

A dozen other actors were also recruited for the project. “We made a point of representing the regional differences in the Lakota language so the program would be useful for all the Lakota tribes,” Carlow says. “Grandpa Bear is Dakota. You can tell he’s from Pine Ridge.”

“The voices represent all four of the major Sioux Reservations—Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock,” Meya says, adding that there were differences in the translation to reflect the regional differences as well. “For example,” he says, “we would use the Pine Ridge version of ‘to be sick,’ rather than the Standing Rock version.”

“There was a lot of prerecording work done by the cast even after the translations were complete,” Carlow recalls. “One member would be recording while the others were in a room working out how to say the lines in the amount of time allowed and using the intonations that would best convey the meaning.” Carlow says it was very moving to see the cast writing, discussing and working with each line of Lakota text, giving the language this kind of detailed attention. “I tried to record some of this work,” she says, “but when I turned on the camera, everyone got quiet.”

The possible impact of the project is nothing less than revolutionary, Meya says. “This project gives hope to people. People have said this is a game-changer. As a generation of young people identify with these characters, it could have deep impact, change their expectations for life. A child seeing a dentist using Lakota with perfect ease learns, ‘I can do this in my language.’ It opens up possibilities. The Lakota-speaking dentist [tells a child] you can be a professional, an educated person and still speak your language. The project is not just for kids. One young man, 35 or 40, said, ‘I’ve been speaking Lakota all my life, and I never thought I’d see the day when it was in a cartoon. I wish my grandfather was alive to see it.’?”

Berenstain Enterprises has granted them the rights to 40 episodes. So far, 20 have been translated and dubbed. “We wanted to get people’s reactions to the first 20 before we started on the remaining episodes,” Black Bear says.

Funding is another constraint, Carlow says. “We have the rights for 40 episodes, but so far the funds to do only 20, so that’s the next phase of the project.”

Available on the are transcripts, vocabulary sheets and comprehension questions that can be used by those learning or teaching Lakota. A DVD of the 20 episodes will be released in November. There’s also a link to the project’s Facebook page on the website.