The Houma are a Native American tribe who originally lived in what is now Mississippi and spoke a language closely related to Choctaw. After European colonists arrived, they allied themselves with the French and began to migrate further south, into what is now Louisiana.
Today, many Houma still live a somewhat traditional lifestyle, fishing and hunting in the Louisiana swamps. Their language, however, has been lost since the beginning of the 19th century. They now speak English and Louisiana (Cajun) French.
Now, some members of the tribe are trying to resurrect it, despite the fact that the language was not written and was only minimally documented before it disappeared.
For the past year, efforts to rebuild the language have focused on translating a recording of an old Houma children’s song, called “Chan-Chuba” or “The Alligator Song.” Houma parents used to tease their children with this song, chasing their little ones while they “chomped” the air with their hands.
Nobody living could remember the words of the song, but last year Colleen Billiot found a tape of her great-grandmother singing it. Billiot told the News Star:
“When we played it, it was like we were unlocking a trunk that had been locked up and covered in dust. It’s my great-grandmother who died before I was born. I heard her sing it, and I said, ‘This is a connection to my past.'”
She and another tribe member, Hali Dardar, have been leading the effort to translate the song. They hope that doing so will give them a start on reconstructing the Houma language.
The odds would seem to be against them, unfortunately. The language was hardly documented before it vanished. In addition to the recording, tribe members are searching libraries around the globe for scraps of the language that might have been documented by long-ago missionaries.
Anthropologist John R. Swanton visited the Houma in 1907, and compiled a vocabulary list of 75 words. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia there is some debate over whether or not these words are all Houma — they may instead be from a trade language called Mobilian Trade Jargon.
According to the News Star, a Louisiana State University student is translating a memoir in French that may contain some clues about the language, and there may be additional documentation in libraries in Canada and Paris.
Even if the entire language is never reconstructed, hopefully the song will be translated, and Houma parents can sing it for their children again.