Published on February 20, 2013 by Amy
The Chitimacha tribe on Louisiana’s coast endured for century after century — surviving war, settlement and assimilation. Its language did not. The native tongue of the Chitimacha people disappeared, seemingly forever, when its last two fluent speakers died in 1934 and in 1940. One generation, then another, grew up not knowing the words of their ancestors, the rich language of the bayous of the Mississippi Delta. But now, with a curious mix of historical, scholarly and technological effort, the language is being reborn. Rosetta Stone Inc., a global language-learning software company, has agreed to subsidize software development in the tribal tongue as part of its Endangered Language Program.
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“We want to bring the language back to the point where we can use it conversationally when we gather as a tribe,” says Kimberly S. Walden, M.Ed., cultural director of the 1,000–member tribe. “Language is really the heart of who you are. It’s not just about learning the words, it’s about learning your past. It’s that connection.” Rosetta Stone Inc. is helping the tribe translate and record its award-winning software program into Sitimaxa, the language of the Chitimacha. When it’s finished, the tribe will own the software and use it to assist ongoing educational programs for children and adults.
This unusual journey to awaken a sleeping language began with the help of history. In 1986, tribal leaders at the small reservation in Charenton, La. received a delivery from the Library of Congress, and discovered recordings of their language — sounds no one had heard in decades; a cultural treasure buried in archives for half a lifetime. Twenty-two wax cylinders made by a Dictaphone recording machine provided 200 hours of Sitimaxa captured in the 1930s by an outsider — the esteemed linguist Morris Swadesh. With partial funding from the American Philosophical Society, Swadesh conducted extensive field research on Native American languages. He had recorded the Chitimacha’s last two Sitimaxa speakers – already aging and alone in the tribe in their fluency. Swadesh and his wife, also a linguist, made field notes that the tribe has since recovered. “The recordings were very hard to understand, especially if you’d never heard the language spoken before,” Walden says. “You have to realize that, as long as I was growing up, all we had [of Sitimaxa] was a few words on a museum brochure that no one could pronounce.”
Faced with a daunting puzzle, and having more pressing community needs, the tribe made little progress for a decade. Things began to change when the Chitimacha transformed their bingo hall into a casino in 1992 and began to use part of the revenue to finance a cultural department. They finally had the internal employees to tackle the Sitimaxa challenge. But they needed help. Tribal employees began asking archeological contractors in Louisiana if they knew anyone who was familiar with the Chitimacha’s language – a long-shot request that, improbably, paid off.
They found Dr. Julian Granberry, a linguist and anthropologist living in Florida with academic credentials and experience with Native American languages. Most incredible of all, they discovered that he’d worked with Swadesh as a high school sophomore and had taught himself to speak Sitimaxa, using research materials. Granberry, now 80, had been studying their native language for decades. “When Dr. Granberry spoke Sitimaxa to a group of Chitimacha elders assembled at a meeting, some of the elders began to cry,” says Walden. “Words started coming back. They remembered.”
He and some members of the tribe threw themselves into the project. Dictionaries were created, classes formed, primers and recordings were shared. Instruction now starts at six weeks after birth at Yaamahana, the Chitimacha Child Development Center, and continues through eighth grade at the Chitimacha Tribal School. Adults who live on or near the reservation have access to night sessions. Rachel Vilcan was one of the first students in the adult class. Now she’s an aide in the K-8 Sitimaxa program.
“The language sounds natural; it sounds like it fits me, like it fits the area,” Vilcan says. “It was scary, at first, to be learning it as an adult, but the desire was stronger. It’s our identity.”
The missing piece in the Chitimacha’s language revival has been conversational fluency. The Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program hopes to help with a solution. The program offers clients, such as the Alaskan Iñupiat, the chance to preserve their language through the cutting-edge Rosetta Stone® software. But, this year, the company also began to offer a subsidized development program for tribes and other groups with a need, but limited ability, to finance language projects.
“Our hope is that Sitimaxa Rosetta Stone software will be a tool that will make a difference in the vitality of the language of the Chitimacha tribe,” says Marion Bittinger, manager, Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program. “We look forward to working with the tribe to help realize their vision for a living and growing language.”
The software program will be translated into Sitimaxa, paired with audio recorded in the studio, and combined with Rosetta Stone elegant photography and some customized Chitimacha images. Ilse Ackerman, editor-in-chief at Rosetta Stone, says the ease of access will enhance language learning for the tribe. “It’s wonderful to think about the multiplier effect,” she says. “If you only have exposure to a few speakers, you are limited — but the software can change that, giving you access to the language around the clock and at long distances.” The tribe has members as far away as Guam, Germany and Alaska who will be able to learn Chitimacha using CDs or online software when the project finishes.
“I think the chances are very great that they will succeed,” Granberry says. “There has been, for the last decade, a strong interest on the part of a large number of the tribal members. When the Rosetta Stone program works, which it will, this will be the first Native American language revived from zero.”