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Tribal voices rise again: Students learn Chitimacha language

CHARENTON - The hands shoot up as Sandra "Sam" Boutte points to her leg.

"Leg," blurts out one of the fifth-graders.

"Sitimaxanki," the teacher says. "Say it in Chitimacha."

"Wix," another student answers. The teacher nods and moves on to arms, fingers, head.

After class at the Chitimacha Tribal School, fifth-grader Taylor Darden sees a vision of the future when asked about her lesson.

"It would be nice for me and my kids ... it would be nice for us to have a conversation in Chitimacha," she said.

It's a vision shared by a small group hoping to revive the language of Darden's Native American ancestors, a language that was teetering on the edge of extinction.

Chitimacha lost its last fluent speaker in 1940. That year might have marked the end of the language had it not been for a group of government ethnographers who recorded and studied Chitimacha speakers in the early 20th century - and a small group now determined to revive the language.

"There was a movement to document endangered languages, and we just got lucky," said Chitimacha Tribe Cultural Director Kim Walden.

The Chitimacha language, believed to have been spoken for 7,000 years, was the victim of the countless indignities suffered by Native Americans across the country during forced assimilation.

"We had never heard the language spoken, only a few words," Walden said. "My grandparents were ordered not to speak it, like what was done with the (Cajun) French."

From the old recordings - done on wax cylinders - field notes from the ethnographers and bits of the language remembered by elders, the Chitimacha tribe has developed a curriculum to teach the language that starts with students as early as six weeks old.

The tribe contracted in 1997 with linguist Julian Granberry, who had learned the basics of Chitimacha while studying a distantly related native language.

Walden said Granberry was given a test of sorts to determine if he was credible.

Elders who had heard the language as children were brought to meet with the linguist to determine if they recognized what he was saying.

"He asked if anyone had memories of the language, and it was silent. No one said they did, and I knew better," Walden said.

Then Granberry spoke a few words in Chitimacha.

"There were ladies who hadn't heard the language since they were children and had tears in their eyes," Walden said.

The tribe developed a teaching packet and first sent it out to all tribal members in 1997. The school program began in 1999, and two teachers now work full time on language instruction. The tribe is planning on publishing an in-depth grammar guide and dictionary this year.

"The Chitimacha have gone the farthest from the zero base than any other tribe in the country," said Granberry, a part-Mississippi Choctaw who runs the Florida-based Native American Language Services and works with several Native American groups in language revitalization efforts. "I would say in another decade, at the most, there will be a new first generation of Chitimacha speakers."

Out of roughly 1,070 tribal members, 121 are enrolled in language classes. Most are in the four-day-a-week courses required in kindergarten through eighth grade. Instruction is also given at the tribal daycare center, and special classes are held for adults and elders interested in the language.

"The scary part to me is that the language was one generation from becoming extinct," said Carolyn Savage, who teaches Chitimacha at the tribal daycare and to adults.

Savage, who is 58, said she remembered hearing Chitimacha only once when she was growing up. She said she felt like something was missing in her life when she grew older and came into contact with other Native American groups that had retained more of their culture.

"The only reason we knew we were Indian was because we lived on a reservation and went to school on a reservation," she said. "We were told we were Chitimacha, but we didn't know what that meant."

Now, Savage is giddy when she hears her students speak.

"I see them all over town and when they say something to me in Chitimacha, it's exciting," she said.

In the language classroom at the tribal school, the teachers are trying everything they can to excite the students.

They play Chitimacha bingo, sing Chitimacha renderings of "Humpty Dumpty" and "Jack and Jill."

"We do a game called 'Who Wants to Learn Chitimacha?' kind of like 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' " said Boutte, the teacher.

Boutte admits she sometimes gives her students a hard time when they slack off, reminding them of the importance of their culture.

"Sometimes we don't feel like learning, but she kind of convinces us to learn it, talks about our history," Darden said.

The challenge now is to encourage the use of the language outside the classroom. Chitimacha has been integrated into ceremonies and tribal staff meetings. There's talk of Chitimacha street signs and classes that bring in entire families.

All the while, the teachers stay just a few steps ahead of the students in developing fluency.

"Before I die, I want to be fluent in the language," Savage said. " ... To me, that is a dream, sitting when I'm older and speaking with younger children in Chitimacha."

--written by Richard Burgess, Advertiser staff

Additional Reading

  Language Revival
  Chitimacha Culture
  Southeast Woodland Tribes
  Louisiana Native American Tribes
  American Indian Cultures

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