This is my English translation of this French article.
Those American Indians who speak French
by Jean-Michel Selva
Father Roch Naquin, Houma Catholic priest
The Houma tribe of Louisiana speak French the way it was used in the 18th century. But the destruction of their environment by oil companies threatens the harmony of this ethnolinguistic community.
They are the cousins of the Apaches and the Sioux. Their skin is red and they speak our language, or rather, that of Montesquieu. Houma Indians are the forgotten ones in the history of Louisiana, where they had to seek refuge from advancing white settlers from England in 1765, following the Expulsion of the Acadians. Already 30 km (18.6 mi) out from Houma, a little town south of New Orleans, and still nothing in sight except a narrow strip of land jutting out into the water. The huge 4x4 Chevrolet Silverado of Thomas Dardar Jr (below), community leader of the Houma Indians, speeds ahead of us and guides us across Isle de Jean Charles. Destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the road, which sinks into the bayous towards the Gulf of Mexico, has just been rebuilt.
Finally, rising in the distance are Pointe-aux-Chenes and breathtaking houses on pilotis, a sort of mobile homes erected on wooden stilts, overlooking the lagoon. "Watch Pipeline", warn signs stuck in the middle of the waters, extending out from either side of the road. A few dead trees, eaten away by salt, are the only ones accompanying us on this road. In this abandoned setting live the majority of the French-speaking Houma Indians.
Black pants, turquoise shirt, and a vest with Indian designs on which his braid sways back and forth, stretching down his back, the leader Dardar stops between the pilotis under a huge yellow dwelling. Father Roch Naquin comes to welcome him, they greet each other with open arms, very French indeed.
Allies of the French
"At the end of the 17th century, before the strained relations between French and English settlers, our community naturally formed an alliance with the former, because the explorers Cavelier de La Salle and Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville had always been supportive of it," explains Thomas Dardar. "As a result, our ancestors learned the French language, and passed it down to us orally. The vast majority of the Houma can neither read it nor write it, but they always speak it."
Banned from schools for being Indians, the Houma were eventually allowed to enroll in public education starting in 1964. But until 1975, they were punished whenever they dared to say a sentence in French. For this tribe of American Indians, a three-century-old form of French was able to endure, because of the cultural importance of oral tradition and their practice of it without contact with the outside world.
The Houma thus saved from oblivion expressions like: catin (harlot/whore/prostitute) for poupée (doll); char (chariot/tank/ wagon) for automobile (car); espérer (hoping) for attendre (waiting); s'épailler (removing dirt from badly forged gold) for s'étendre (stretching/spreading/expanding); and even "icitte" for "ici" (here), "au boutte" for "au bout" (at the end)...They mix as many words with Choctaw, their ancestors' language.
"The State of Louisiana granted us Indian nation status only in 1979," notes Thomas Dardar, "but we're still waiting for federal recognition, already rejected in 1994." "We here are the roughly 17,000 Houma Indians, divided into three clans, united by the use of the French tongue." Father Roch Naquin like to say he considers himself French and Indian. "My ancestor Charles came from the Bordeaux region and married an Indian. Here on Isle de Jean Charles, my father and those of his age spoke and wrote French. He then learned English, unlike my mother who never wanted to. Today only the eldest of my neighbors refuse to. The youngest became English speakers. It will be hard to preserve our language." At 55 years old, even the chief Thomas Dardar who's mastered French perfectly uses the American language more often. This generation of Houmas in their fifties may be the last to express themselves in the language of Molière. The last surviving link to a way of life that's already no more.
A Difficult Life
"Forests with tall trees used to grow here," recalls Chief Dardar. "Over there, my grandfather raised cattle in the meadows where muskrats would run," points Roch. "We had horses to plow the land, which produced enough to feed us. With the intensive oil drilling, salt water has leaked everywhere, it continues to eat our land and destroy all the vegetation."
To survive, the Houma community, scorned by everyone for centuries, turned to fishing. Some of them have managed to become lawyers and doctors, others have left to work in the shipyards. But for one year now, because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Houma can no longer fish like before. Skin diseases and respiratory problems have emerged. "They seem to be linked to BP spreading solvents to get rid of the oil slick floating in the gulf."
This fragile community is plagued and weakened even more: "very few among us have access to adequate social welfare," laments chief Dardar. "We've also suffered from the last four hurricanes. My house has been raised higher above ground on three occasions in twenty years, the roofing replaced a number of times. Leave and go elsewhere? No, no, this here is my house, this is the land of our ancestors," protests Father Roch Naquin.