Orleans, LA Even though Janie Luster has lived in Bayou Dularge
all her life, in some ways she is still a stranger to the land.
The tiny water-bound fishing community in southwestern Louisiana
is rich with the culture of the Cajuns that are familiar to so many,
but Luster, 62, is 100 percent Houma, an indigenous Indian tribe
of which little is known.
The tribe's language consists of so few words that she has named
her two dogs the Houma words for raccoon (chaoui) and perch (naní)
just to keep them in circulation.
"We only have a handful of words left," she says. "The more
time goes by, the more time we lose. Our elders are passing on."
Two millennial-aged women of Houma ancestry have committed to
the race to save that history. Hali Dardar and Colleen Billiot,
both 25, have embarked on a project to reconstruct the language
of their ancestors through linguistic sleuthing. It is a language
that wasn't spoken for almost a century.
The challenges are steep: There are few available recordings
and texts of the language and only a few dozen words are known,
largely because of a Smithsonian anthropologist who interviewed
native speakers in 1907.
The fate of the Houma language is not unique. Linguists say
that the rate of language extinction is accelerating and that by
the next century, nearly half of the 7,000 languages spoken around
the world today like the Houma, mainly spoken by small tribes
in remote places will probably disappear because of cultural
assimilation and globalization. The loss will be profound, says
Irina Shport, an assistant professor of language acquisition at
Louisiana State University in Lafayette.
"Every language is the world view of the speakers and world
in which they live; it's not just about culture. Language is really
the window into how the human mind works," she says.
Shport says the race to save the Houma language "is a difficult
task, but not impossible. It just depends on how much we have to
The starting point was a single recording made in the early
1970s by Elvira Molinere Billiot, the great-grandmother of Billiot,
a Georgetown University graduate who grew up in St. Bernard Parish
outside New Orleans. Her father's distant cousin found the cassette
recording and gave it to Billiot, who upon moving back home had
already expressed a strong interest in learning more about her Houma
ancestry. The recording was made by Mennonite missionary Greg Bowman,
who was conducting research about the Houmas to help them achieve
federal recognition. It features the elder Billiot singing "Chan-Chuba,"
a simple children's song that some believe is about chasing an alligator
out of the house.
Earlier, at a Houma tribal council meeting outside Lafayette,
Billiot met Dardar. The two women realized they shared an interest
in researching their tribal roots but didn't know where to start.
When they listened to the elderly woman sing the strange melody,
in a language they did not understand, they knew it presented an
opening to their project.
"I was getting teary-eyed listening to a voice I was related
to, but who died before I was born. It was surreal," says Billiot,
who now lives in Northern Virginia and works in government. "We
knew there was something to be preserved, something we should care
about, that we should at least try to find more about as Houma.
We finally had something to go off of and we got exited."
They digitized the song, drew up a mission statement and started
interviewing elders such as Luster, who sits on the tribal council.
Within months they were able to construct a pocket dictionary of
all the known Houma words, which they printed and distributed at
local powwows, Indian festivals and summer camps for Houma children.
They also created phonetic lyric sheets of "Chan-Chuba" to teach
the song to a new generation of children.
"We don't know what the words mean, but they are still able
to sing the song," says Dardar, who lives in New Orleans and works
in information technology. "It allows them to begin questioning
what are those words were. That's the important thing to stimulate
even though we don't have all the answers for it yet."
The Houmas settled central Louisiana and are closely related
to other tribes in the region, particularly the Choctaw. They were
discovered by French missionaries in the late 1600s and by the 1700s
became their military allies, bringing them into conflict with other
tribes and the British military. By the late 1700s, encroachment
by Acadian settlers intensified hostilities, which reduced their
numbers even more, pushing them further south into the coastal bayous.
Living in relative isolation, the Houma were largely left alone
until the oil and gas boom early in the last century dispersed them
further to more remote parishes.
Racial segregation prevented Houma children from enrolling in
public schools, forcing them to attend mainly missionary schools
where English was spoken, which further eroded the use of their
Today, the United Houma Nation says that 17,000 people of Houma
descent live in a six-parish region in southwestern Louisiana. Many
of these people, like Luster, grew up speaking a variety of French
that reflects the assimilation of both cultures. Why some words
survived and why others have not is a mystery, Luster says.
"Sometimes I hear elders older than me using a word that we
hadn't heard in a long time and it's like, 'that has to be a Houma
word,'?" she says. "It's pretty interesting to see what survived
and you wonder why and how."
The words that are known reflect, unsurprisingly, the landscape
of coastal Louisiana: ankoló (cyrpress), níta
(bear), santé (snake), sakcé (crawfish) and okélawaféna
Shport conducted research with students who worked with Billiot
and Dardar to first transcribe "Chan-Chuba" phonetically and then
analyze the findings to determine whether there were parallels to
other native languages from the area, such as Choctaw. The group
also met with elders, scoured archival materials, and searched dictionaries
of Houma French and a universal trade language called Mobilian,
which all Gulf Coast tribes used, in an effort to trace overlapping
words or grammar.
While both women say the project is a lifelong commitment, they
outlined milestones they want to hit: grow their finely sourced
database of vocabulary words, grammar and syntax, and create a curriculum
that will allow it to operate within a contemporary context. And
then get people using it.
"The biggest role Hali and I play are being mediators between
the tribal community and the academics," says Billiot. "It takes
a lot of people to keep it going. Our being there when the linguists
are there validates this project. It's a matter of trust."
Luster hopes that resurrecting the language will give the Houma
Nation something it has been trying to secure for several decades:
After rejection by the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Office of Federal
Acknowledgement in 1994, the tribe once again intends to go through
the recognition process.
Luster says that the Houma people are slowly restoring their
culture. In 1993, Richard Conn, an expert on Native American art
at the Denver Art Museum, reintroduced to the Houma a form of basket-weaving
that he discovered was indigenous to the tribe.
Luster and other Houma women now demonstrate the craft at festivals
around Louisiana, including each spring at the New Orleans Jazz
and Heritage Festival.
"We know as a tribe what it is to lose something and then have
the opportunity to gain it again," she says. "What we are now lacking
is the language. It would be the full circle."
Guarino is a freelance writer.