Koasati is an endangered language with fewer than 300 fluent speakers among the Tribe's 800 plus members. An initial three-year $450,000 grant was received from the NSF's Documenting Endangered Languages program for documenting and revitalizing the spoken language among the Coushatta tribal members, while the second grant will focus on the first phonetic study of Koasati.
Serving as co-principal investigators for the grants are the husband-wife team of Bertney Langley, director of the Coushatta Tribe's Heritage Department, and Dr. Linda Langley, McNeese research professor of anthropology.
Much has been accomplished with the first grant, according to Linda, including the creation of a 1,200 word topical dictionary with an audio CD of sounds and word pronunciation and the publication of children's picture book.
"In addition, Koasati Language Project leaders and volunteers continue to work to transcribe and translate almost 100 hours of recorded interviews and conversations with tribal members," she said. These materials will provide additional content for a new website, new books and teaching materials, as well as the Coushatta Heritage Center that will house a theater, interactive digital exhibits and video displays, genealogical materials and a Koasati language library.
Bertney said the major thrust of the first three years was "the documentation of the language, which has been tremendously successful and well received among the tribal members."
A couple of McNeese students, who are also Coushatta tribal members, assisted with the documentation process. Heather Williams, an elementary education major, compiled the children's picture dictionary and phrase book, while Crystal Williams, a government major, conducted historical research on topics such as the traditional stomp dances.
Heather's interest in her culture began while watching her mother and grandmother create baskets from pine needles and raffia and listening to their conversations in a language she didn't fully understand.
"I was concerned that the language was dying. Working with the Langleys while in high school, I was able to research and document the language and to develop a children's picture dictionary and phrase book," said Heather.
Crystal's focus was on researching traditional tribal dance. "Years ago, Christian missionaries visited Indian communities and brought their own teachings and beliefs. That influence resulted in the banning of our traditional dances, such as the Stomp Dance. Being involved in this project, I've learned that it is possible to restore culture and value, as long as the community is dedicated to the future (our children).Our elders say 'Knowing your language is knowing your culture,' and in order to keep it alive within our community, we have to keep practicing it," said Crystal.
The Langleys are now working with two linguists - Jack Martin, a professor at the College of William and Mary, and Matthew Gordon, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara - on the phonetic study. "Jack is an expert in the Muskogean language family, while Matthew's area of expertise is phonetic analysis," said Linda. "The data gathered over the next two years will consist of analyses of scripted surveys of fluent speakers and conversational data."
The driving force for this project comes from the Koasati Language Committee, a group of tribal members fluent in Koasati who volunteer their time and efforts to work with the linguistic consultants, according to Linda.
"Our studies suggest important differences between Koasati and both Creek and Chickasaw. These findings will contribute to knowledge of sound patterns in Koasati, Muskogean languages, North American languages and language in general," she said.
"This collaborative project of keeping the Koasati language alive is providing a solid foundation to build on for the Coushatta Tribe-we're all doing this for our children," added Bertney.