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“Yes, It’s Time To Do This”: How a Native American Tribe is Preserving its Language With Technology Posted by on Nov 4, 2013 in Company News

When I first started thinking about working on Koasati, I realize now, I knew nothing.

I knew Koasati was a living language spoken by the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas. I knew that the majority of Coushatta people once spoke the language, but it now had fewer than 500 speakers. But I didn’t speak the language or even understand its grammatical structure, and I knew nothing about the field of documentary linguistics or endangered languages in general.  I had never heard of the United National proclamation on endangered languages, and did not understand that the world’s indigenous languages were disappearing at an alarming rate.  I was not a Coushatta tribal member or a tribal employee, and not particularly adept at navigating or even understanding tribal politics (my daughter tells me I very much fit the stereotype of an absent-minded professor, which makes me pitiful at most social occasions where you have to remember peoples’ names and current gossip).

What I did have going for me was 30+ years of training and experience as an anthropologist, a strong sense of professional obligation, and a spouse who is a Coushatta tribal member and native Koasati speaker.  Also, as I learned later, a spouse with a very “tough skin” and sense of humor obtained through living in the Elton, Louisiana tribal community for over 20 years.

What makes this Endangered Language project unique is that it was conceived, initiated, and run by the Coushatta people from the start.  During the summer of 2006, when we went to the Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) training at AILDI (the American Indian language Development Institute, at the University of Arizona), my husband Bertney and I heard from many other tribes whose languages had dwindled down to very few speakers, and I think it hit him for the first time that his language might actually be endangered.

When we got back from the training, we met with all of the tribal elders, asking them if they thought we should do a project like this.  I still remember going to Lufkin and, as one tribal member put it, being “knocked over with a feather” when one of the elders who had always resisted the idea of recording or teaching the language said “Yes, it’s time to do this.”  After that we had a community meeting, explained about the National Science Foudation (NSF) grant proposal we had written, and had a sign-up for volunteers who wanted to work on the project.  Over 30 volunteers signed up to work on the language project at that first community meeting, and many more tribal members have come forward to volunteer since then.

We also held a meeting between linguists and the Tribal Council to talk about project logistics, such as ownership of recordings and language teaching materials. As strange as it might seem by today’s standards, linguists that previously worked with tribes would consider recordings and related materials as their personal property, perceiving no obligation to give copies of the material to tribally-run libraries or archives. Not surprisingly, the Coushatta elders and Council felt strongly that all materials produced during the course of the project should belong to the Tribe.  I remember one of the tribal members saying that they were tired of the old way of working with researchers, being treated like bugs under a microscope and never receiving copies of the books produced or anything else in return for their participation.  The Coushatta people stated very clearly that they considered this to be their project, and that they would find and employ the professionals that they felt they needed to work with in order to accomplish their goals.

The first meeting of the all-volunteer Koasati Language Committee was held in June, 2007.  There was never any discussion of payment or other incentives for Committee members; to this day I have never worked with a more dedicated or selfless group of people.  Committee members represented every clan, family, and age group within the Tribe, and yet, in almost seven years of difficult work, language meetings have never gotten bogged down by politics or differences of opinion.  At that first language committee meeting, we talked about the possible benefits of the project, the kinds of activities that people wanted to see, and possible methodologies we could use to achieve project goals.  One of the linguists emphasized the option for Koasati to never be written, explaining that some tribes decided never to write their language, and that writing had pros and cons (for example, you might end up teaching people to read, rather than to speak, their language).

Despite this information, everyone present seemed to think it was a great idea to develop a system of writing Koasati, so we went through the process of selecting the orthography (way of writing the alphabet) and seeing what various words would look like. The Committee developed a slogan, “Skonakathanaa Koasati, Koasati Nathihilkas” (“We must not lose our Koasati language; we must all speak our Koasati  language”).  Some of the first language products the Committee wanted were things to make the slogan visible, such as bumper stickers, T-shirts, coloring books, and refrigerator magnets.  At first people didn’t think they could read things written in Koasati, since they had never seen it written, but from the beginning, the idea of reading and writing the language became intertwined with the idea of speaking and saving the language.  Later slogans reinforced this message, such as “Kontikba kolaboskanna”  (“Don’t let our flame go out”), “Koasati Nathihilkas” (Let’s all speak Koasati”), and “Kosnap Kowassatok Om! Konnaathiihilka ahichaachilkap, komaati ahichaachilkalaho (We are Koasati! Protect our language, protect our people”).  We also developed events, such as an annual Language Day to celebrate Koasati, pine needle basket making evenings, summer Heritage camps, and other annual events with the goal of getting people together to speak Koasati more in their homes, in the community, and in public places. Later on we added newsletters, children’s books, a phrase book, a multi-media ”talking” dictionary, a smart-phone app, and language project and dictionary web sites (Print dictionary: http://bit.ly/1cz6PxM; online dictionary website: http://koasati.wm.edu/; and the language project website: www.koasatiheritage.org, which has links to the online dictionary, the print dictionary, the iOS dictionary app, and electronic Koasati language lessons in Transparent Language programs).

I first heard about Transparent Language from a colleague who said it was a great way to learn mainstream languages, and maybe could also be used to learn a less-commonly taught language like Koasati.  When I first approached the folks at Transparent Language, I was warmly received, and from the start our project to document and revitalize Koasati was given tremendous respect, even though it’s a language spoken by such a small group of people that lessons could never be commercially viable.

I remember when we first invited tribal elders aged 80 years and older to attend an Advisory Meeting in 2007.  They answered questions about older words, key events in tribal history, people in photographs, etc., as I had expected. But then, they surprised me. They told me that they knew the linguists a long time ago made mistakes, and they used to laugh but largely ignored them (of course, they were not typically provided feedback opportunities or consulted for their opinion, either).  The elders looked straight at me, and apologized, saying that they knew they were wrong and should have paid more attention to the linguists, and accepted blame for the decline of Koasati.  They asked me to help them “fix it, before it’s too late.”  If I hadn’t felt morally obligated before then, as a professional or tribal spouse, saving Koasati became my life’s work the moment I promised the elders that I would try to help.

It’s hard to know what our next steps should be, but at a minimum we want to see a daycare and pre-school where the Koasati language is spoken exclusively.  From there, we hope to expand the “Koasati-only” zone to include after-school and weekend activities, games, contests, and community get-togethers.

 

Linda Langley

Coushatta Tribe of LA

October 2, 2013

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