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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 4, 2003 - Issue 97


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North Dakota School is Trying to Save Hidatsa Language


by Patrick Springer - The (Fargo, N.D.) Forum


Young Woman with woven bowlMANDAREE, 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?"

But he asks the question in Hidatsa, not English, and they have to answer in Hidatsa.

One student needs to be reminded that the Hidatsa have a different start to the week.

"Sunday's not the first day of the week," Gwin says in English. "Monday is."

The Hidatsa words "Dami mape" ripple around the room. Third day, Wednesday.

The Hidatsa language classes at the school in Mandaree operate as close as possible to immersion.

If 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.

The 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.

Most are elderly. A few, like Alex Gwin, are middle-aged.

He continues his verbal drill, keeping the students guessing by peppering them with questions that defy any predictable pattern.

"How much water?" he asks in Hidatsa. Then, "What's the month?"

Next he directs his students' attention to a lesson sheet, where phrases in Hidatsa must be converted to English.

The last phrase, it turns out, carries relevance: "Niishub nihaad": Hurry up and finish.

Pearl Burr Young Bear made a pact decades ago with four of her friends in the boiler room of their boarding school.

The 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.

Years 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.

Now 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 from extinction.

Working as two-member teams, they expose students to extended dialogue spoken by fluent native speakers.

While 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.

The ban was so complete that when White first attended school, she scarcely spoke a word of English.

"It's reversed now," Bird Bear said. Her students "don't know the Hidatsa."

Alex's 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.

"When I first came here," he said, "they said here's a classroom, go teach Hidatsa. There was nothing, no desks or chairs."

Younger brother Lyle joined Alex in the classroom after stints as a school bus driver and a Marine.

While 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 language.

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