Tunica-Biloxi Tribe receives grant to restore its language

3-year, $748,200 program will train instructors to teach tribe's youth

A three-year grant totaling $748,200 will help the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe’s efforts to restore its traditional language.

The Administration for Native Americans (ANA) awarded the grant to the Tribal Council. The funds will be allocated to the Language & Culture Revitalization Program (LCRP) to train Tunica language apprentices to become fluent speakers and language instructors.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for the Tribe, our people and our rich culture,” Development & Programming Director John Barbry said.

“In 2017, the Tunica language was recognized as ‘reawakening,’ following years of hard work by our people and linguistic partners,” he continued. “We are extremely grateful to ANA for the support in continuing these efforts.”

Tunica-Biloxi Tribal Council member Brenda Lintinger reached out to Tulane University’s Linguistics Department, specifically to Dr. Judith Maxwell, in 2010 to determine the university’s interest in helping the tribe gather decades-old research materials and documents.

Lintinger’s theory was that if the materials could be updated and reformatted to make them more easily accessible to tribal members, it would lead to the rebirth of the Tunica language.

The last fluent Tunican language speaker was Sesostrie Youchigant, who died in 1948.

Youchigant worked with linguist Mary Haas in the 1930s to share what he remembered of the language.

That work, combined with that of tribe member William Ely Johnson with Swiss ethnologist Albert Gatschet in 1886 and the work of linguist John R. Swanton in the early 1900s form the basis for the language revitalization project.

Haas published A Grammar of the Tunica Language in 1941, Tunica Texts in 1950 and Tunica Dictionary in 1953.

The Tunica language is a “language isolate,” meaning it is not related to other Native American tongues such as Choctaw, Algonquin or Sioux.

For example, the Biloxi Tribe’s language is related to the Sioux language family. Tunica is a “language family” of one.

Most Southeast tribes communicated with each other in a “trade language” called Mobilian jargon.

It was the prevalent use of that jargon, as well as the common use of French and then English, that eventually led to the extinction of the language, which lay largely dormant until Lintinger’s efforts began in 2010.

‘A DREAM TRANSFORMED'

“This is a dream transformed into a profound reality,” Lintinger said. “To hear our children speaking Tunica during weekly classes and the summer language camp is something we never thought to experience.”

She said working with Maxwell’s team seeing tribal children “speak the words of our ancestors, continues to inspire all of us with Kuhpani Yoyani Luhchi Yoroni -- the Tunica Language Working Group.” Lintinger said the ANA grant “will help us to further the objectives of the project, to bring the Tunica language into the homes of all our tribal families.

“There is still a long road ahead to meet the goals of their 15-year master plan for the language,” she said. “The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe currently has 50 speakers, but none that are fluent in the language. The grant will enable training of additional, higher-level speakers and will help to expand their language education efforts into a sustainable program which will focus on tribal youth.”

Tunica-Biloxi Chairman Marshall Pierite said for the tribe “to build for our future, we must cherish our past. By educating tribal youth on the importance of our traditions, we can bridge the gap between generations and sustain our culture for years to come.”

Tunica language apprentices will participate in language classes, one-on-one instruction, independent study, cultural life-ways workshops, language camps and outreach events and achieve certification by the end of the three-year period.

Instructors will conduct Tunica language classes for tribal youth as a way to strengthen their sense of identity and community, generate knowledge of the language and lower the extreme risk factors that affect them.

To learn more about the Tunica-Biloxi language and the ANA grant, visit https://www. tunicabiloxi.org/. 

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