July 24, 2015

Martha (Yellow Wolf) Birdbear, Hidatsa Language Instructor


Martha Birdbear is a fluent Hidatsa speaker and currently an elementary language instructor at the Mandaree Public School.


Martha (Yellow Wolf) Birdbear

Born: July 8th, 1948 in Elbowoods, North Dakota
Mother:Thelma Burr-Young Bear
Father: Lloyd “John” Yellow Wolf
Oldest to youngest

    • Veronica Yellow Wolf-Good Iron (deceased)
    • Mary Yellow Wolf
    • Victoria Yellow Wolf
    • Frances Yellow Wolf
    • Katherine & Kathleen Yellow Wolf
    • Delphine Yellow Wolf (deceased)
    • Sara Joane Yellow Wolf


  • Berthold Yellow Wolf (deceased)
  • Raymond Yellow Wolf (deceased)
  • Anthony Yellow Wolf (deceased)
  • Les Yellow Wolf

Martha Birdbear is a fluent Hidatsa speaker and currently an elementary language instructor at the Mandaree Public School. Mrs. Birdbear attended elementary to high school in Mandaree, North Dakota, graduating in 1968. She got married to Fritz Birdbear that same year.

A stay at home mom since 1969, she began her teaching career at the Mandaree Public School in 1994, when the youngest of her children graduated high school.

She also went back to school and earned her language teaching certificate in 1996, her Associate of Arts in early childhood education from Fort Berthold Community College in 1999, and then went on to earn her Bachelor of Science from the University of North Dakota in 2000, and is currently working towards her Masters in elementary education from UND as well.

Her children are:

  • Cora Lee Birdbear (deceased)
  • Calvin Birdbear (deceased)
  • Anna Birdbear
  • Fritz Damon Birdbear Jr.

Martha and Fritz Birdbear have five grandchildren ranging from ages 2 – 9 years old, as well as many others from family members.

The Interview:

As a fluent speaker, was Hidatsa your 1st language?

Hidatsa was my first language. I started speaking English in 2nd or 3rd grade after I started going to school, and had to speak it. I didn’t start speaking English fluently until I was about in 6th and 7th grade. I felt I was labeled as a slow learner by my teachers because I didn’t speak or understand English right away. Even now I feel more comfortable speaking Hidatsa than I do English because it feels more natural as my first language, and because that’s all I spoke at home.

How did you become a language teacher?

I was asked by the school to come and start teaching the language to the students in Mandaree. I thought, “I know Hidatsa, this shouldn’t be too hard.” I learned a lot more than I expected, and started taking classes at the community college to work towards my A.A. degree in Early Childhood. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I wanted to teach and help preserve the language.

How often do you speak Hidatsa in your household?

Not much these days, except to my grandchildren. My children really want their children to know it, and they got upset with me for not teaching it to them.

Why didn’t you?

Because I didn’t want them to have a hard time like we did not speaking English very well. With Fritz being punished at boarding school for not speaking English and myself for having a difficult time at school, we both decided that it would be best that we didn’t speak anything but English to our children, which I regret. But now I am trying to teach my grandchildren. I watch them a lot and speak Hidatsa to them every chance I get.

What kind of things would you like to see that would bring the community together and start working towards fluency of the Hidatsa language?

I think I would like to see all of the fluent Hidatsa speakers get together and help teach the youth, but there are behavioral problems in the classrooms with the children not listening and having respect for teachers and authority. This is where parents can help and become more involved.

How would you help the cause of preserving the Hidatsa language?

If I could, I would like to do something like I am doing now, teaching immersion but in a daycare-like environment instead of a regular elementary school. I would concentrate on one year olds to maybe about kids of kindergarten age, around five or six. I would completely immerse them in Hidatsa and get them to start speaking it.

Do you think converting the language into a written form will increase the chances of it being preserved?

Yes, especially if it has some type of audio with it (like a tape or CD), so people won’t get the words wrong. If it was just written, people could mispronounce it and start saying it like that and then words can change. I have never used the language in written form before I started teaching. I wasn’t sure about doing it, but I felt more comfortable after knowing that other teachers were doing it.

Hidatsa has been spoken and has survived many years before it was ever written down. Sometimes I just write it down the way it sounds like with English letters (phonetically), and usually I tell my students to do the same and make sure that they pronounce it correctly.

I have heard the older people talk about how the sound of the language has changed. Do you think this is true?

Some things yes. The pronunciations on some words I’ve noticed have changed. I haven’t noticed any change in the speaking or pronunciation until I had started teaching and seeing Hidatsa written down. I remember people coming and telling me how the written lessons I taught to the kids were very different from the way that it was suppose to be spoken.

How important do you think it is for today’s youth to learn about language?

Learning the language is really, really important. People won’t know much if they don’t know the language. The language connects to all aspects of our culture – if you don’t know it then you’ll be lost. Traditional ways of thinking such as having respect for all things, and not taking them for granted, are not instilled in Native youth today like they were when I was a child.

What is your advice to young people who want to start learning the language and more about culture in general?

Get involved, and get all the information you can. For anyone who wants to know, especially the very, very young ones as well as the older people who don’t know but want to. Read books, go to the museum. Ask your parents, grandparents, teachers, elders, anyone who has knowledge of language and culture. Ask them and learn from them as much as you can.

Hidatsa Language
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