FORT TOTTEN, N.D. (AP) - With soup and conversation in a college gym, members of the Spirit Lake tribe are trying to keep their language alive.
People gather in the tribal college gym every other Tuesday for conversational Dakota language instruction.
''To do it in a non-classroom, non-threatening setting, just to get people talking,'' said Cynthia Lindquist, president of Candeska Cikana or ''Little Hoop'' Tribal College.
Spirit Lake, on the southern shore of Devils Lake, has perhaps 120 fluent native speakers of Dakota - most of them elderly - on a reservation with a population of about 4,435.
''We're losing these native speakers,'' Lindquist said.
So are many other tribes. No known fluent speakers of Arikara remain, and just one fluent Mandan speaker is known to survive on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation.
Congress has passed legislation to establish tribal ''language nests'' for young children, as well as language restoration programs and native language instruction materials.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who is in line to be chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he pushed for the legislation because it is part of retaining Indian culture.
Native language programs on some reservations have shown benefits beyond language, he said.
''The kids who are participating in these programs also have better academic performance,'' Dorgan said.
The legislation makes funding available for multiyear grants to three tribes, schools or other organizations to preserve Native language, Dorgan said. Tribes in North Dakota and elsewhere can apply for funds.
Lindquist said more than 300 Native languages once were spoken in North America. That number has dwindled to about 175, and one estimate predicts the number of viable Native languages could drop to 20 by 2050.
The Dakota language is spoken by 20,355 in the United States and Canada, according to figures compiled by Ethnologue, a language database. An estimated 6,000 Lakota speakers, a very similar dialect, also remain.
A renaissance of traditional cultures has been spreading through many tribes in recent years, which has helped American Indians reconnect with their heritage, Lindquist said. That, in turn, helped boost self-esteem and combat alcohol and drug abuse, among other problems, she said
''The healing is coming through the culture,'' Lindquist said. ''Language and culture are entwined.''