Crystal Williams, a member of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, is a part of the Koasati Language Project. The effort seeks to preserve the Coushatta language. Koasati is considered an endangered language — only one-third of the 800-person tribe is fluent. (Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, July 23, 2012 11:21 AM
ELTON — One turn onto Powell Road in north Elton opens the door to a hidden world. Grazing buffalo stand on the right side of the road and just ahead the seal of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana hangs down, declaring the tribe a sovereign nation.
“It’s one world out there and then it’s our Coushatta world. We’re living two worlds, being American Indian,” said Crystal Williams, a tribe member.
“We are Indian. We have an identity. We have a culture, our own culture. That’s why it’s so important to know and to revitalize it, so we don’t forget.”
Williams is a part of the Koasati Language Project, an effort to preserve the Coushatta language. Koasati is considered an endangered language — only one-third of the 800-person tribe is fluent.
The project began five years ago after husband-wife team, Bertney and Linda Langley, recognized the need.
“We didn’t realize we were losing our language because, as I told her, we speak it everyday. She said, ‘Well, you have to look at the young people to see if they’re actually speaking it,’” said Bertney Langley, the director of the tribe’s Heritage Department.
“She started citing examples of who and what families weren’t speaking it, and I started looking at it, and I said I think you’re right, but I don’t think there’s much we can do. She said well why don’t we apply for a grant to go to the University of Arizona because they have a training and teaching seminar on native languages.”
The Langleys received the grant and found their problem was one most large tribes face.
Linda Langley, an anthropology professor at McNeese State University, decided to apply for a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue their work.
Initially, the tribe received a three-year, $450,000 grant from the NSF’s Documenting Endangered Languages program for documenting and revitalizing the spoken language among the Coushatta tribal members. This year, they received a second grant of $131,572 to focus on the first phonetic study of Koasati.
But for the Langleys, the most important part of the project was incorporating the members of the tribe. “You have a long history of people from the outside, the so-called experts, going in, telling the tribes this is what you have to do,” Linda Langley said.
“Like any grassroots movement, it’s never going to be really successful if the goal is to not just document, not just put language in a bottle, but to revive it and make it stronger and more commonly used on a daily basis. That cannot be done by an outsider.”
“Our tribe has always been involved in projects like this or what we do at the Heritage Center — like one big happy family doing things together,” Bertney Langley said.
“It wasn’t this idea that has been there forever of somebody from the outside going, taking a bunch of recordings, takes them away with them, gets a Ph.D., writes a book and in the community nothing has changed. This is different, this is them doing it,” Linda Langley said. “This tribe has really driven this project. We have a large volunteer language committee, and they’ve called all the shots pretty much from the beginning.”
They started with documenting the history of the tribe and then began recording oral histories and tribe members speaking Koasati in everyday situations.
After the documentation phase, it was time to create an alphabet. Koasati had previously been only a spoken language, so the tribe had to create an alphabet from scratch. The English alphabet served as a basis for the letters, but some were modified to better fit the sound of the Koasati language. Tribe members voted on each letter to create the alphabet.
“It’s this idea of a get together and people turn up, people care. It’s a complete democracy,” Linda Langley said.
“As a matter of fact, when we were voting on the sounds of the alphabet, they had to remind me a few times you are not an Indian, you don’t have a vote here.”
She said they went immediately from the alphabet to creating the spelling of words.
“One thing we’ve all learned is that words are not enough. You end up with a community where everybody can count to five and say three colors,” she said. “We started with words so everybody could get familiar with the words and with writing it. Then right away went to phrases and sentences.”
The tribe worked with phrases and sentences for a couple of years and then on to written texts, which ranged from just two to three sentences strung together to “How to Make Fry Bread.”
“This is so you can use the language in a real way,” she said. “You can say something to somebody. We also asked people to start thinking of ways to teach it to other people.”
The tribe is currently working on this phase. Tribe members have worked together to create books, flashcards and other activities to begin passing the language on.
Heather Williams, a McNeese student and tribe member, created a book to help teach the language. The book is made up of common questions like “What do you want to eat?” and students must answer in Koasati. The book included illustrations that could help prompt the answers.
“It’s useful, too, for my reference. When I’m trying to do a translation, I go back and look at the word or the question.”
Crystal Williams collaborated with Heather and made an audiobook to go with it. She said that hearing it with the visual helps reinforce the language.
The two have also taught a summer camp for the past two years for young tribe members to learn the language.
They modified the tribe’s alphabet poster to be kid-friendly.
Heather Williams said then they added images beside each letter so that children would have an easy reference for how to pronounce the sound of the letter.
She said they chose easily identifiable words like apple and the most common words for the children.
“They pick it up maybe after the second week,” Heather Williams said.
“We’ve been learning how they’re learning, which is pretty interesting,” Crystal Williams said. She has two children of her own and she said the project is even more personal because of them.
“I want them to know fully what being Coushatta is,” she said.
Bertney Langley said the project goes beyond just having a written word. They are focusing on the total revitalization of the language and culture.
“We’ve always been told from the elders that if we don’t speak our language, we should not consider ourselves as Indian people. That kind of always rings in my head whenever we do projects. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and we get frustrated, and we want to throw up our hands and say we can’t do it, I think about those words and we go at it another day. We see if we can do something different to spark the interest in younger people,” Bertney said.
“We try to make the language a living language. We live the language, we speak the language, we can think in Koasati. We hear stories from the past that our elders told us in Koasati, so we have to interpret those stories and pass it along to the next generation. That’s why it’s important we continue what we’re doing. Hopefully, we can have enough information stored as a foundation for future generations.”
“The elders do tell you, and I’ve heard that all my life, if you don’t use the language you’re not Indian. If you don’t speak Coushatta, you’re not Coushatta. For us to revitalize our culture, it would mean to not just revitalize the language, but it means the dances and our games and the meanings and the ways that we live,” Crystal Williams said.
“I really appreciate the elders. They’re the ones that really write down and say how it’s supposed to be said. That’s when we learn from them. We’ll have sessions from 9 in the morning until 3 p.m. and they’ll just sit there and talk about how life was. I’ve really taken that and really learned from that.”
“They do dictionary sessions. That really hit upon me to really want to be there. You don’t want to miss anything while they’re all there at one time,” Heather Williams added. “They motivate us to get involved.”
“They tell us it’s up to y’all. It’s up to the young ones to carry this on,” Crystal Williams said. “I think that’s what motivates us to keep doing this project.”