La.'s Tunica tribe revives its
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Louisiana: Brenda Lintinger is
reviving the ancient Tunica
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
"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.
The Tunica tribe aligned themselves with the
French, and later the Spanish, in
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
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
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
Kathleen Bell, a graduate student
who worked on the project. So
researchers referred to past work by
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.
International Phonetic Alphabet,
marking stress and some intonations.
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
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
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
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
Tunica Animal Words
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