In a dead language on a tape 40 years old, Elvira Billiot sings a children’s song about an alligator.
Last year, a great-granddaughter Elvira Billiot never met heard “Chan-Chuba” for the first time and felt an immediate connection to the ghostly voice and her people.
“When we played it, it was like we were unlocking a trunk that had been locked up and covered in dust,” said Colleen Billiot.
The alligator song could help resurrect the Houma language that has not been spoken for a century. Colleen Billiot and another Houma descendant, Hali Dardar, also 25, have spent the past year trying to translate the lyrics to “Chan-Chuba” in hopes that they can translate that one song as a first step in reconstructing the language.
“It’s this tiny connection to your ancestors that you haven’t had in 100 years where you were able to speak,” Dardar said. “Just having that bond is pretty cool and pretty strong.”
Many Houma have heard of “Chan-Chuba,” Dardar said, but no one knows what the words mean, beyond chan-chuba, which is Houma for alligator. They know that generations ago, grown-ups would chase their children around the house, Dardar said, singing the song and chomping with their hands at kids.
The small scrap of song is a window to the women’s Houma heritage.
Today many of the 17,000 members of the United Houma Nation live in a six-parish region of south Louisiana between St. Bernard and St. Mary parishes, with the nation’s tribal government based in Golden Meadow.
The Houma language seems to have a lilting, musical quality. Part of the Muskogean family of Native American languages, Houma is probably closely related to Choctaw, Dardar said.
In the 1700s European settlers and Jesuit missionaries introduced French, Billiot said, and by the early 1900s, most of the tribe spoke “Houma French,” a dialect Billiot said still retains some of the musical cadence of the “Indian” language.
“An elder has a joke about how the Houma are so smart that when the French came we had an agreement: We would learn their language and they would learn ours,” Billiot said. “And don’t you know, we learned theirs so quick and they never learned ours.”
Other tribes have successfully reintroduced their languages. In 2010 the Chitimacha tribe in Charenton partnered with Rosetta Stone language software to teach members the language, which had not been spoken in 60 years. However, their language had been documented much more than the Houma’s.
Neither Billiot nor Dardar intended to become linguistic researchers. Billiot studied international relations at Tulane University and works as a dispatcher with the Louisiana State Police. Dardar is a graduate student studying information science and engineering.
In March 2013, the pair met at a Houma tribal meeting. They shared a desire to study their culture.
A few months before, Billiot’s father — a law enforcement expert on his way to train police in Afghanistan — had left her a copy of her great-grandmother’s recording made in the 1970s by a missionary who visited the Houma. Billiot didn’t have a tape player and hadn’t heard the recording. They tracked one down and listened.
“It’s my great-grandmother who died before I was born,” Billiot said. “I heard her sing it, and I said, ‘This is a connection to my past.’”
Over the next few months, they sought out anyone who knew about the Houma language. They created a website featuring a digital file of “Chan-Chuba” and met with scholars from across south Louisiana. Some were doubtful anything could be done with the dead language because so few resources exist. Houma was never a written language.
An LSU professor who teaches linguistics, Elisabeth Oliver, initially doubted the language could be rebuilt at all. She is surprised by the progress the team has made.
“They’re amateurs in the best sense of the word,” Oliver said. “They are doing it because they love it.”
Their main focus has been to search libraries for word lists made by missionaries or traders who encountered the Houma. One list of about 75 Houma words was created by the anthropologist John R. Swanton, who visited Lafourche and Terrebone parishes in the early 1900s.
Another list of words from several Gulf Coast tribes was found in the memoirs of a French-speaking man kept in an LSU library.
Von de Leigh Hatcher, a 21-year-old studying English and French at LSU, has been translating the work and comparing the word list with other languages to determine which words may be Houma. She became involved with the project while enrolled in a class on historical language reconstruction with Dardar in the spring.
Hatcher is also trying to locate the work of a Jesuit priest who documented the language, books that may be stored in Canada or at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
“We are literally going to have to go around the world to find something local,” Hatcher said.
This spring, Irina Shport, an assistant professor in LSU’s Department of English, led a class of students interested in the project. She said that another path to reconstructing the language could be to search Houma French and Mobilian jargon — a trade language used by Gulf Coast tribes to communicate — for traces of Houma words and grammar that have been reused.
“It truly is sort of a treasure quest,” Shport said.
This summer, Dardar took a break from her own studies to attend CoLang, the Institute for Collaborative Language Research at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she studied how to reconstruct language and learned Choctaw.
They hope within their lifetimes Houma children can learn the language their people once spoke. Even if it’s impossible to rebuild the entire language, any progress they make is positive, Dardar said.
“I think that’s a mountain,” she said. “And any point along that mountain is not a bad path.”