Before Europeans began to explore what is now the United States, the Tunica people lived in the Mississippi River Valley. They grew maize for food, traded in salt, and built mounds to bury their dead.
However, by 1800’s, they were down to less than 100 members living in Marksville, Louisiana. They merged with a few friendly tribes, including the Biloxi, the Ofo and the Avoyel. These tribes all spoke languages from completely different families, so the Tunica communicated with their new brethren in French. The last fluent Tunica speaker died in the 1940’s.
Fast forward to 2010, when tribe member Brenda Lintinger contacted Judith Maxwell, a linguistics professor at Tulane University, in an effort to help revive the language of her ancestors. It was not an easy job. The last living speaker, Sesostrie Youchigant, worked with linguist Mary Haas to make a record of Tunica before he died. Still, it had been decades since anyone had spoken it, and the only recording available were old and of poor quality.
“We would meet in group sessions and hash it out. I would say we still don’t have grasp on much of it.”
Despite the difficulties, members of the tribe are enthusiastic about reviving the language. Maxwell says that this gives Tunica a more optimistic prognosis than it would have otherwise: “If people want to speak a language, they will. Look at the number of people who now speak Klingon or elvish or Na’vi.”
That enthusiasm was clearly on display at a tribal powwow in May of this year. Members of the tribe read stories from a children’s book written in Tunica by Ms. Lintinger. She told the Associated Press, “When we got up and read them in our language, I wish I could tell you how excited everyone was. Everybody was so taken by it, so caught up in listening to the stories.”