a dead language on a tape 40 years old, Elvira Billiot sings a children's
song about an alligator.
Last year, a great-granddaughter Elvira Billiot never met heard
"Chan-Chuba" for the first time and felt an immediate connection
to the ghostly voice and her people.
"When we played it, it was like we were unlocking a trunk that
had been locked up and covered in dust," said Colleen Billiot.
The alligator song could help resurrect the Houma language that
has not been spoken for a century. Colleen Billiot and another Houma
descendant, Hali Dardar, also 25, have spent the past year trying
to translate the lyrics to "Chan-Chuba" in hopes that they can translate
that one song as a first step in reconstructing the language.
"It's this tiny connection to your ancestors that you haven't
had in 100 years where you were able to speak," Dardar said. "Just
having that bond is pretty cool and pretty strong."
Houma have heard of "Chan-Chuba," Dardar said, but no one knows
what the words mean, beyond chan-chuba, which is Houma for alligator.
They know that generations ago, grown-ups would chase their children
around the house, Dardar said, singing the song and chomping with
their hands at kids.
The small scrap of song is a window to the women's Houma heritage.
Today many of the 17,000 members of the United Houma Nation
live in a six-parish region of south Louisiana between St. Bernard
and St. Mary parishes, with the nation's tribal government based
in Golden Meadow.
The Houma language seems to have a lilting, musical quality.
Part of the Muskogean family of Native American languages, Houma
is probably closely related to Choctaw, Dardar said.
In the 1700s European settlers and Jesuit missionaries introduced
French, Billiot said, and by the early 1900s, most of the tribe
spoke "Houma French," a dialect Billiot said still retains some
of the musical cadence of the "Indian" language.
"An elder has a joke about how the Houma are so smart that when
the French came we had an agreement: We would learn their language
and they would learn ours," Billiot said. "And don't you know, we
learned theirs so quick and they never learned ours."
Other tribes have successfully reintroduced their languages.
In 2010 the Chitimacha tribe in Charenton partnered with Rosetta
Stone language software to teach members the language, which had
not been spoken in 60 years. However, their language had been documented
much more than the Houma's.
Neither Billiot nor Dardar intended to become linguistic researchers.
Billiot studied international relations at Tulane University and
works as a dispatcher with the Louisiana State Police. Dardar is
a graduate student studying information science and engineering.
In March 2013, the pair met at a Houma tribal meeting. They
shared a desire to study their culture.
A few months before, Billiot's father a law enforcement
expert on his way to train police in Afghanistan had left
her a copy of her great-grandmother's recording made in the 1970s
by a missionary who visited the Houma. Billiot didn't have a tape
player and hadn't heard the recording. They tracked one down and
"It's my great-grandmother who died before I was born," Billiot
said. "I heard her sing it, and I said, 'This is a connection to
Over the next few months, they sought out anyone who knew about
the Houma language. They created a website featuring a digital file
of "Chan-Chuba" and met with scholars from across south Louisiana.
Some were doubtful anything could be done with the dead language
because so few resources exist. Houma was never a written language.
An LSU professor who teaches linguistics, Elisabeth Oliver,
initially doubted the language could be rebuilt at all. She is surprised
by the progress the team has made.
"They're amateurs in the best sense of the word," Oliver said.
"They are doing it because they love it."
Their main focus has been to search libraries for word lists
made by missionaries or traders who encountered the Houma. One list
of about 75 Houma words was created by the anthropologist John R.
Swanton, who visited Lafourche and Terrebone parishes in the early
Another list of words from several Gulf Coast tribes was found
in the memoirs of a French-speaking man kept in an LSU library.
Von de Leigh Hatcher, a 21-year-old studying English and French
at LSU, has been translating the work and comparing the word list
with other languages to determine which words may be Houma. She
became involved with the project while enrolled in a class on historical
language reconstruction with Dardar in the spring.
Hatcher is also trying to locate the work of a Jesuit priest
who documented the language, books that may be stored in Canada
or at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
"We are literally going to have to go around the world to find
something local," Hatcher said.
This spring, Irina Shport, an assistant professor in LSU's Department
of English, led a class of students interested in the project. She
said that another path to reconstructing the language could be to
search Houma French and Mobilian jargon a trade language
used by Gulf Coast tribes to communicate for traces of Houma
words and grammar that have been reused.
"It truly is sort of a treasure quest," Shport said.
This summer, Dardar took a break from her own studies to attend
CoLang, the Institute for Collaborative Language Research at the
University of Texas at Arlington, where she studied how to reconstruct
language and learned Choctaw.
They hope within their lifetimes Houma children can learn the
language their people once spoke. Even if it's impossible to rebuild
the entire language, any progress they make is positive, Dardar
"I think that's a mountain," she said. "And any point along
that mountain is not a bad path."
The United Houma Nation today is composed of a very proud and independent
people who have close ties to the water and land of their ancestors.
The unique history of our people has shaped our tribe today and
the culture and way of life are a lifeline to that history.
American Languages of the Southwest
The Native American Languages Lab, under the direction of Dr. Colleen
Fitzgerald, focuses on indigenous languages currently located in
the Southwest United States, with an eye to serving communities
and their language needs. Support for Native language programs includes
onsite technology or linguistic training, database construction
and development, and support for grant development. Current funding
for the NALL comes from 3 active NSF grants totalling $284,571,
as well as from UT Arlington's Sustainability Committee, with Dr.
Fitzgerald as PI. They include: The 2014 Institute on Collaborative
Language Research (CoLang/InField; NSF grant#1263939); Documentation
and Analysis of the Chickasaw Verb (NSF grant #1263699.) in collaboration
with Mr. Joshua Hinson of the Chickasaw Language Revitalization
Program; The Oklahoma Breath of Life Workshop (NSF grant#1065068)
in collaboration with Dr. Mary Linn of the University of Oklahoma