NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - It’s been more than a half century since anyone could speak the language of Louisiana’s Tunica-Biloxi tribe. But thanks to the notes and recordings of early linguists, the tribal leaders are now teaching their language in hopes of bringing it back to life.
After a full day in school, these young members of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe in Marksville are trying to learn a second language. A language that was once spoken fluently by their great, great ancestors
“We come to work you know every day planning lessons creating new materials in order to teach and to share with our tribal community,” said Elizabeth Mora.
Mora and her mother are helping to guide the re-introduction of the Tunica language, which was helped by an old text and dictionary, created by a linguist in the 1930s and saved by a grandfather of Donna Pierite’s husband.
“We've been chosen to do this. It is a gift a spiritual gift that's been passed on,” Pierite said.
Linguists, including a team from Tulane University, have helped to modernize the Tunica language. They use old Tunica words and imagine how those might have evolved throughout the centuries.
“So for example, pahita is the word for lightning,” said Tyler Whitaker. “We're also using it for electricity and for anything that's digital. And the word for to think is niyu. And so we have pahita niyu is an electric thinker or a computer.”
The last known fluent speaker of the Tunica language was a tribal chief named Sesostrie Youchigant. He was recorded in the 1930s singing one of the tribal songs. This and other old wax recordings and linguists’ notes are the holy grail of reconstructing the language.
“It uncovers things about our culture that we would never know if we didn’t know the Tunica language,” said John Barbry.
Beyond the class, lessons are being taken online. And videos – like this Halloween favorite – are helping to stir interest with today’s youth.
“It'll probably be for a long time us just knowing phrases and greetings and learning how to apply the language in everyday life. And for some of us that are older, we may never be fluent, but we’ll have a knowledge of the language and we’ll have a knowledge of our culture,” Barbry said.
The creativity and dedication of linguists, teachers and these students will determine if their ancestors’ language will ever be spoken again by Tunica-Biloxi families.
You can learn more about the tunica-biloxi tribe of louisiana at the tribes cultural center and museum in marksville.