Tunica-Biloxi Tribe hosts ‘Endangered Languages’ conference at Tulane

By RAYMOND L. DAYE

    Their tribes’ languages have been declared “extinct -- the Tunica, Biloxi and Ofo. The tribe considers them “sleeping,” and is actively involved in revitalizing the Tunica language. It has plans to do the same with the Biloxi and Ofo tongue as well.
    Its effort on its own language has sparked a deep interest in the overall issue of preserving endangered languages, and led to the tribe being a host of the Foundation for Endangered Languages Conference (FEL) being held in New Orleans this week  on the Tulane campus.
    FEL Conference Chair Brenda Lintinger, a member of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe, said a people’s identity is closely linked to its language -- regardless of the culture.
    “Not having your native language is like having something missing,” Lintinger said. “It’s like having a hole in your heart or a limb cut off.”
    She said Native American languages have had cultural pressure applied, such as persecution for speaking the tribal language.
Lintinger said the international conference enables participants to share their experiences and solutions with each other “and foster a deeper respect for the cultural differences around the world. It really helps promote harmony among all peoples.”
    The conference’s theme is “The Music of Endangered Languages.” It focuses on how music and songs can aid in the revitalization and preservation of endangered languages.
     Among the topics to be discussed is how music and songs of a “heritage language” aid in economic activities, such as tourism.
 
Legendkeepers Perform
     On Saturday, Donna Pierite and her daughter Elisabeth Pierite-Mora will perform traditional Tunica songs and modern songs in the Tunica language. They will also conduct a short class on the Tunica language.
    The two women are Legendkeepers of the local tribe and also teach the language and culture classes at the tribe’s education center.
    Ms. Pierite’s son, Jean-Luc Pierite, is also a Legendkeeper and is attending the conference, but may have to return to Massachusetts for another commitment before Saturday’s presentation.
    Ms. Pierite said they had to submit a written report on their subject to be approved to present at the conference, and were honored when their presentation was accepted. The report will be included in the official journal of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.
    “The music of the tribe is a way of instilling cultural pride in the people,” she said. “It is important in preserving a language. In the past, the songs were part of not only the tribe’s tradition but were pan-tribal. They were part of the gatherings of the tribes, where they played games, sang, danced and prayed for good crops.”
 
Language/Culture Revitalization
    The Tunica-Biloxi Language & Culture Revitalization Program is a comprehensive effort to preserve the tribe’s heritage. It includes not only the language, but also instruction on traditional crafts such as pottery and basket-weaving and lessons on the traditional tribal regalia.
    Ms. Pierite said language classes for children ages 5-10 are held on Tuesdays and for ages 11-17 are on Wednesday.  Cultural workshops for the whole family are conducted on Saturdays. 
    The tribe also conducts summer camps to teach the language and culture classes to the children.
    Program Director John Barbry said it is important to target the young tribe members to ensure the language and culture are preserved for future generations.
    About 39 percent of the tribe’s membership are under the age of 18, so there is an ample audience of youth to target. However, Barbry noted, the effort is hindered because only about half of that number live within easy driving distance to the education center in Marksville.
Barbry said the program includes online sessions to reach  tribal members nationwide.
    Barbry had an article on the tribe’s efforts published in the FEL journal and will be at the conference performing host duties as well.
 
Tribe’s languages
    The Tunica language is not related to other language families of the Sioux, Natchez, Muskogee or Choctaw. It is a language unto itself.
The Ofo and Biloxi are in the Sioux family. The Avoyel -- also claimed to be a part of the Tunica-Biloxi, which is disputed by other groups claiming to be the descendants of Avoyelles’ first people -- were related to the Natchez.
    When all three tribes lived in the area, they communicated with each other in French or in a common language called Mobilian Jargon -- a mix of French and Choctaw-Chickasaw, used to facilitate trade between tribes in the Gulf Coast states. Most tribes also spoke the language of their neighboring tribes.
    The Tunica language officially “died” -- or “went to sleep,” if you prefer -- when the last known Tunica-speaker, Sesostrie Youchigant, died around 1948.
    However, Youchigant helped to ensure the language was not forgotten by working with linguist Mary Haas to preserve it in her books, A Grammar of the Tunica Language (1941), Tunica Texts (1950) and Tunica Dictionary (1953).
    The Biloxi and Ofo languages are related to the Sioux -- somewhat like English is related to German and Spanish is related to French and Italian -- so the local tribes’ languages are similar but different from their Great Plains kinsmen.
    Lintinger said there are resources available, including a dictionary of Ofo and Biloxi words, and she hopes the tribe will be able to undertake the same kind of program for those elements of the tribe as it has for the Tunica language. 
    The last native Biloxi-speaker was Emma Jackson, who died in the 1930s. Jackson, when in her 80s, worked with linguists Morris Swadesh and Mary Haas in 1934 to preserve some of the language. Biloxi became an extinct, or dormant, language with her death.
The Ofo tribe was absorbed into the Tunica by the early 1800s, but its distinctly different language survived within the Tunica until the early 1900s. 
     The last Ofo speaker was Rosa Pierrette -- an Ofo woman who married a Tunica man. She died in 1908.

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