Teaching the Tunica language

Last week was the 2015 Tunica Language Camp in Marksville, Louisiana. Walking in, I had my doubts about how many of the campers really wanted to be there and how many were just being made to go by their parents. There were certainly some that fell in each category, but they all had fun and learned about both their heritage language and cultures.

I spent my time working with the 4-6 year olds, teaching alongside two Tulane students, Meg Harvey and Oliver Kaufman. We were led by a teacher from the reservation, Brenda Lintinger, who was the one who originally came to Tulane for assistance.

It was a challenge to work with this group, Tonisɛma Nokushi (or Bear Clan) meeting 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but they turned out to be amazing to work with.

We taught them basic greetings and introductions, numbers, and colors. By the end of the camp, they could all count, recognize colors, and greet each other. They could also introduce each other in this complicated language that differentiates gender in second and third person statements. They knew to say “otisa” when talking about a boy’s name and “tetisa” for a girl.

We also came together as a full group, 44 kids and varying numbers of adults, to learn about cultural aspects and do group activities. They were taught about traditional practices, focusing on powwows and the native sport, stickball. The boys split off to make bone choker necklaces and play games while the girls made shawls to use in dancing.There were special guests that came in to show us powwow dances and teach us about their dress for the dances. They also demonstrated the basics of drumming and singing for powwows.

Another day, we had as guests a few members of a professional stickball team, including their captain and coach. They showed us how to make the sticks and the effects variations in the construction can have. They gave a short exhibition performance of the game with the assistance of three of the men from Tulane, then helped different groups play the game themselves. The Tulane group even went out to play the game themselves after all the kids went home.

The days were long, but the tribe was gracious in giving our group several rooms in the hotel and covering our food costs. The hotel has multiple restaurants, two pools, a movie theater, and, of course, the casino, meaning that we had plenty to do in the evenings. On the final evening, the parents came to an open house where dinner was provided and we got to show off to the parents what they’d learned throughout the week.

All in all, it was a long week, but one of the more rewarding I’ve had in a long time. This camp reinforced just how worthwhile the revitalization of the language is, and I was honored to be a part of it.

Mackenzie Walters, a Madison-Plains alumna, is a student at Tulane University studying linguistics. She is a member of a group working to resurrect the lost language of the Tunica Native American tribe.