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Languages before colonization: How one Indigenous project is bringing Uma back to life

Uma tree identification visual from the Houma Language Project.
Kezia Setyawan
Uma tree identification visual from the Houma Language Project.

Even before it was colonized and would become known as Louisiana, there were various languages spoken in the region by the natives that lived here, calling the area “Bulbancha,” Choctaw for “place of many tongues.”

But many residents in the state don’t know that a diversity of native tongues existed well before colonization of the state, something that the Houma Language Project hopes to change.

Established in 2013, the Houma Language Project has worked to study and revitalize the indigenous Houma language, called Uma. The project first started when co-founders Hali Dardar and Colleen Billiot heard an old audiotape from the 1970s of two women singing the "Alligator Song" in the Houma language. One of the women was Billiot’s great grandmother, Elvira Billiot.

Billiot said since the project started, team members have been intentional in reconstructing the language to reflect what their ancestors would have actually said.

“It's all done with so much on your mind about culture, heritage and ancestral teachings,” Billiot said. “We always are looking forward and back for several generations, and just trying to make sure that we're doing the best we can in the space and time we have.”

There aren’t any active speakers in 2022, so the project has limited information about the language to piece together, mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries. But through their research, team members have been able to develop open resources like Anũpa' Estwasúhah — the Uma version of Wordle — a dictionary app, keyboard and pronunciation guides.

Billiot said working in Uma has given her insight into what society was like when the language was used.

“We also put a great deal of thought into every word that we create. Even the rebuilding and reclaiming, you're piecing together the language and the very rules and premises we follow for it,” Billiot said, “Muskogee languages, including Uma, are very verb focused. It’s very intentional that the action is sort of more important than the who and the noun or what's being acted upon.”

Earlier this spring, it marked the first set of interns to complete the group’s Youth Language Internships, which came about because of an $84,000 federal grant for the United Houma Nation and the Houma Language Project.

The grant was from the Administration for Native Americans as part of the American Rescue Plan, a bill passed by Congress in March aimed at stimulating the U.S. economy to help it recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The grant focused on helping develop and save indigenous language efforts across the country.

The majority of volunteers and all interns are Houma tribe members. Project team member Brittany Verdin Jimenez said that the internship has been a way to create much-needed Native representation, something that isn’t available to them in a traditional school setting.

“We're still here, we still have stuff to share with our people. We are still doing everything we can to make sure that the next generation thrives,” Jimenez said.

Spring intern Jace Naquin, 17, said that he got involved with the project after his mom learned about the program after becoming more involved with the tribe and wanted to continue rediscovering their Indigenous culture. The internship ended up being a natural way to connect further.

“My focus was to figure out my place in the community, learn more about my history, my culture and how to speak the words of my ancestors,” Naquin said.

Interns worked over a three-month period and were able to pick from three different focuses, such as partnering with a French-speaking relative for in-person conversations, contributing online to the project’s efforts to bring back the tribe’s native language, or assisting the tribe’s archivists with language and cultural research.

Naquin said that it was also a way to push back on Native American stereotypes and the idea that all native people were the same across the country.

While project members work on revitalizing a language that hasn’t had any active speakers in generations, Naquin brought up how they’ve used a lot of digital tools to connect with each other.

For his final project, he and another intern gave a written and an oral presentation by retelling a traditional Houma story titled Mẽku' Saktce’ — which translates to Chief Crawfish and tells the story of why crawfish are red — using indigenous words.

Naquin said he’s been able to see that the Creole French spoken by his grandmother has words influenced by the indigenous language.

“I've noticed a lot more things about Louisiana's unique culture that may have come from Houma,” Naquin said.

The Youth Language Internship is working through their second batch of participants this fall.

And earlier in October, the Houma Language Project collaborated with the state’s Office of Cultural Development in the Division of Archeology to put out a poster featuring the indigenous Houma language that centers on one of the tribe’s ancestral sites.

It showcases Uma' damáha' tcetu' – which translates into the Grand Houmas Village located in present day Ascension Parish. Jimenez said that this was the first time the group worked directly with the state and is one of the ways the project brings language to the general public.

“It doesn’t just give us legitimacy within our people, but just legitimacy period – as a people,” Jimenez said.

As for Billiot, she said she’s excited to see the work team members and volunteers have continued to put in by attending Indigenous language conferences and keeping the website updated with learning tools that they have developed for tribal members and the general public to use.

“I think it's great to see people that are becoming passionate about language reclamation as we are and being as passionate about Uma as we are,” Billiot said.

Kezia Setyawan is a coastal reporter for WWNO and WRKF and is based out of Houma.

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