Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Thu Sep 18 19:33:57 UTC 2003

 Educators seek to save Hidatsa language from fading into history By the
Associated Press

MANDAREE (AP) -- 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

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

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 perhaps 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, a few moments later, "What's
the month?"

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

The last phrase, it turns out, carries inadvertent 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 covertly 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-sixth and the Gwin
brothers continue with grades seven-12 -- the front line in guarding their
language from extinction.

Working as two-member teams in the classroom, 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; English was forbidden.

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 Gwin'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

The Hidatsa language instruction program, established more than 20 years
ago by one of his sisters, had been discontinued for two years, so his
first task was one of resurrection.

"Two years running, it just went dead," he said. "When I first came here,
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 Gwin was one of the first students at Mandaree
to study Hidatsa, though for him it merely reinforced what he had already
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.

The generations that followed his own had not grown up with the same value
given to preserving the native tongue, he said.

More is at stake for the Gwins than the language itself. They also want to
preserve the traditions that are tied to it.

"Language and culture, you can't divide them," Lyle Gwin said. "They're one
and the same."

But there are not enough families still speaking Hidatsa to ensure that the
language will survive on its own.

"Contrary to all belief, a language doesn't die gradually," Alex Gwin said.
"It dies abruptly, from one generation to another."

A few years ago, Alex Gwin decided to collaborate with linguist John Boyle,
who is working on his doctoral dissertation on Hidatsa at the University of

Boyle has been visiting the extended Gwin family for several years,
collecting stories, writing a grammar primer and compiling a dictionary
database. He has studied transcripts and recordings collected by linguists
who visited Fort Berthold around the turn of the previous century.

"It's really interesting to see how the language has changed from most
speakers a hundred years ago and speakers today," he said.

One sign of a dying language, he said, is the tendency inexperienced
speakers have of imposing the grammatical structure of the dominant
language spoken around them.

That borrowed sentence structure doesn't show up in the speech of the Gwin
siblings, for whom Hidatsa was their first language, but it is common for
those who learn it as a second language, Boyle said.

For example, an English speaker would say, "We wanted to get our skulls,"
but that would be "Our skulls get want," in a literal translation from

Boyle, who teaches English and history at a Chicago high school, also is
working to preserve the Mandan language. But he said his work on Hidatsa,
in partnership with the Gwins, remains his focus.

"Hopefully I can help them, if not revive the language, at least document
it and preserve it for future generations," he said.

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