Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 1   September 2011

La.'s Tunica tribe revives its lost language
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In this Aug. 5, 2011 photo, Brenda Lintinger poses with one of her children's books she wrote in the Tunica Indian language, in her home in Metairie, La. 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.

Louisiana: Brenda Lintinger is reviving the ancient Tunica language.

In 2010, the 51-year-old Tunica Tribal Council member was searching Tulane University's website and noticed the school specialized in lesser-known languages.

"And I thought, they don't get much more unknown than ours," said Lintinger.  Tunica fits the criteria for a dead language. It hasn't been spoken since the 1930s.

Lintinger sought help from Judith M. Maxwell, who heads Tulane's Linguistics program.  "It was a very exciting prospect," said Maxwell. "Especially since the tribe is so enthusiastic about it."

After a grant application was rejected, Maxwell organized a group of students who donated their time to the project.

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

The Tunica, which now has 1,174 members, is concentrated in central Louisiana. They combined with the Biloxi tribe, whose roots are in Mississippi, as both groups lost population. The tribe was officially recognized and granted reservation land in 1981.

But their language was lost as they assimilated into the European and African-American population around them. 

A few old, wax phonograph cylinders of the Tunica language were found, but wear and tear and background noise made the chants impossible to decipher. 

"The quality was terrible, and the drums more or less drowned out the chants," said Kathleen Bell, a graduate student who worked on the project. So researchers referred to past work by academics:


more Tunica Animal Words

One had published a short grammar of the language in 1921.

In 1939, a linguistics scholar worked with the last tribal member who could converse in the Tunica language.  She used the International Phonetic Alphabet, marking stress and some intonations.

File:IPA chart 2005.pngThese were not enough, however, to give Maxwell's group the rhythm, timing and the way the language was phrased. So they 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.

"We would meet in group sessions and hash it out," Bell said.  "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 Tunica members of all ages are very interested. Thy want to go 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."

Lnitinger's children's book based on the Tunica language was presented during the tribe's powwow in May. About 650 copies  -- featuring the Tunica tales "Deer and Turtle" and "Fighting Eagles" -- were handed out. Two tribal 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, worked hard 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."

Tunica Animal Words













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