ND - Alex Gwin stands behind the lectern and asks his high school
students what sounds like a disarmingly simple question: "What day
of the week is it?"
he asks the question in Hidatsa, not English, and they have to answer
student needs to be reminded that the Hidatsa have a different start
to the week.
not the first day of the week," Gwin says in English. "Monday
Hidatsa words "Dami mape" ripple around the room. Third
Hidatsa language classes at the school in Mandaree operate as close
as possible to immersion.
a student wants to be excused to go to the restroom, he or she had
better have a strong bladder or be able to ask permission in Hidatsa.
approach, called Total Physical Response, has been used to teach
native languages in Hawaii and among the Blackfeet in Montana. At
Mandaree, the Hidatsa community on the Fort Berthold Reservation,
educators hope it will revive the tribe's language, spoken by 100
or 150 residents.
are elderly. A few, like Alex Gwin, are middle-aged.
continues his verbal drill, keeping the students guessing by peppering
them with questions that defy any predictable pattern.
much water?" he asks in Hidatsa. Then, "What's the month?"
he directs his students' attention to a lesson sheet, where phrases
in Hidatsa must be converted to English.
last phrase, it turns out, carries relevance: "Niishub nihaad":
Hurry up and finish.
Burr Young Bear made a pact decades ago with four of her friends
in the boiler room of their boarding school.
girls gathered in the basement at night to speak their native languages,
which were forbidden at Indian boarding schools. They vowed that
when they got out, they would never speak English.
later, Young Bear saw to it that her grandchildren, including brothers
Alex and Lyle Gwin and their cousins, Arvella White and Martha Bird
Bear, spoke Hidatsa at home.
the four cousins form the teaching staff for the Hidatsa language
program at Mandaree. White and Bird Bear teach Grades K-6 and the
Gwin brothers Grades 7-12, the front line in guarding their language
as two-member teams, they expose students to extended dialogue spoken
by fluent native speakers.
they were growing up, their grandmother took a rule of the boarding
school and turned it upside down: Children were to speak only Hidatsa
in the household.
ban was so complete that when White first attended school, she scarcely
spoke a word of English.
reversed now," Bird Bear said. Her students "don't know
tenure teaching Hidatsa began four years ago. After serving on the
School Board for more than a decade, he decided to try his hand
in the classroom.
I first came here," he said, "they said here's a classroom,
go teach Hidatsa. There was nothing, no desks or chairs."
brother Lyle joined Alex in the classroom after stints as a school
bus driver and a Marine.
in high school, Lyle was one of the first students at Mandaree to
study Hidatsa, though for him it merely reinforced what he had learned
at home. When he returned home after serving with the Marines, he
said, he was alarmed at the erosion he found in the state of the