When two members of the United Houma Nation discovered an old recording of a song in the native Houma language, linguists and anthropologists alike were given a tip to the iceberg that is uncovering and understanding the century old language.
The Houma people, a Native American tribe recognized by the state of Louisiana, includes 17,000 tribal citizens and has been recorded as existing since 1682.
They have no federally recognized land and are scattered among six parishes in southern Louisiana, yet their native language is being reconstructed through musical artifacts in the efforts to preserve and unify their culture for generations to come.
Researchers have used the song to document the endangered language.
Hali Dardar, a research assistant and University alum, worked with locals and professionals such as Elisabeth Oliver, an alumni professor in the English department, to revitalize the Houma culture. She worked with Colleen Billiot, a St. Bernard Parish native whose great-grandmother hummed the verses in the recording, and began the Houma Language Revitalization Project.
The goal is to use the “alligator song” to piece together the native language and use grammatical structures to teach the language. The learning of the language will facilitate participation in the Houma culture and reflect the Houma history.
The language is an integral part of the Houma culture that Dardar said she hopes, once learned by the present Houma people, will live on through the community in years to come.
“Right now what’s needed in the community is a language project and that’s what we’re trying to fulfill,“ Dardar said. “This isn’t a school run project, it doesn’t end with the terms of a grant — it’s a project that continues as it’s developed in the community.”
And the community is responding.
Houma native and English senior, Rowan Whitehurst, said Dardar and Billiot’s work inspires her to learn more about her hometown’s culture.
“I gives me a lot more respect for Houma and makes me want to learn more about what was there prior to what is there now,” Whitehurst said. “Houma is a big town, not many people know about it and they should know more than just it’s where Swamp People was filmed.”