La.'s Tunica tribe revives its lost language

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Posted: Aug 06, 2011 11:54 AM
La.'s Tunica tribe revives its lost language

Brenda Lintinger decided to do more than learn a new language _ she set out to resurrect the ancient tongue of her own Tunica Indian tribe, words that had not been uttered for more than 60 years.

In spring 2010, the 51-year-old Tunica Tribal Council member had been searching the website of Tulane University in New Orleans when she noticed that the school specialized in lesser-known languages.

"And I thought, they don't get much more unknown than ours," said Lintinger, whose maternal great-great-grandfather was a tribal chief in the 1930s, the last decade the language was spoken.

So she sought the help of Judith M. Maxwell, who heads the Tulane Interdisciplinary Program in Linguistics. It fit the criteria for a dead language, as the tribe has not found anyone who even remembers hearing the Tunica language as a child.

"It was a very exciting prospect," said Maxwell. "Especially since the tribe is so enthusiastic about it."

The Endangered Languages Fund turned down Maxwell's application for a small grant, so she instead put together a group of students who donated their time to the project.

The Tunica tribe aligned with the French and later the Spanish during Louisiana's colonial period in the 1700s and was granted land in what is now Louisiana by the Spanish. But encroachment cut tribal holdings to about 130 acres by the mid-1900s, Lintinger said.

The Tunica, which says it now has 1,174 members and is concentrated in central Louisiana, combined with the Biloxi tribe, whose roots are in Mississippi, as both groups lost population and the tribe was officially recognized and granted reservation land in 1981. The Tunica opened a casino and hotel in Marksville, La., in 1994, employing almost 2,000 people.

The casino has sparked a renewal for the tribe, allowing it to fund programs and training for members and giving members a chance to move back to the area for casino jobs, Lintinger said.

But their language, which like those of many Native Americans was lost as they assimilated into the European and African-American population around them, seemed unlikely to come back before the Tulane efforts.

There were a few old, wax phonograph cylinders with the language recorded on them, but years of wear and background noise made the chants impossible to decipher, said Kathleen Bell, a graduate student who worked on the project.

"The quality was terrible, and the drums more or less drowned out the chants," she said.

The researchers were able to refer to past work by academics. One published a short grammar of the language in 1921, and a linguistics scholar in 1939 worked with the last tribal member known to be conversant in the Tunica language.

Mary Haas, a linguist who worked with a number of Native American languages, worked with a tribal elder, writing down stories and bits of Tunica history. She used the International Phonetic Alphabet, marking stress and some intonations, but not enough to give Maxwell's group the rhythm, timing and the way the language was phrased, Bell said.

The modern scholars used Haas' material to create glossaries and a "more modern take on grammatical properties of the language," Maxwell said.

The process was gradual, and there is still much work to do, Bell said.

"We would meet in group sessions and hash it out. I would say we still don't have grasp on much of it," she said.

Bringing a language to life depends on the desire to speak it, and attempts to revive languages generally aren't successful, Maxwell wrote in an email while conducting a summer program in South America. But Tunica members have a strong interest beyond simply hearing how their ancestors communicated.

"If people want to speak a language, they will," Maxwell said. "Look at the number of people who now speak Klingon or elvish or Na'vi."

Tunica officials eventually hope to be able to teach the language to members of all ages, Lintinger said. A children's book based on the language was presented during the tribe's annual powwow in May, and many members wanted to learn the language and asked about classes, Lintinger said.

About 650 copies of the book _ featuring the Tunica tales "Deer and Turtle" and "Fighting Eagles" _ were handed out at the powwow. Two tribe members read the stories aloud in their native tongue.

"When we got up and read them in our language, I wish I could tell you how excited everyone was," Lintinger said. "Everybody was so taken by it, so caught up in listening to the stories."

The group, along with Tulane faculty member Nathalie Dajko, also has put together two Tunica prayers.

Kathleen Ubnoske, who read one of the stories at the powwow, said it took a lot of work to learn the language, but when she stood before the members of her tribe, speaking it came easily.

"My mouth just ran with it, not that it was easy but it felt so right when I started to read," Ubnoske said. "It seemed it was a natural thing for me to do.

"I took it as I was honoring my grandfather and great-grandfather and down the line when they were speaking this."