Heart of Louisiana: Coushatta Harvard

It never happened before in the history of Harvard University.
Published: Jul. 30, 2023 at 9:59 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 30, 2023 at 10:33 PM CDT

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - It never happened before in the history of Harvard University. But a Louisiana student who is a member of the Coushatta Indian tribe, was determined to convince the ivy league school to let him study his native language for college credit.

Eli Langley has fond memories of playing in the woods near his home,

“Just going outside and being amongst the trees. Our word for forest is ih-to-hi-o. It means within the trees or amongst the trees,” Eli Langley said.

From the time he was in seventh grade, Eli wanted to go to Harvard.

“I remember telling people, I’m going to Harvard. And of course a lot of people said no Indian kid from Elton is going to Harvard. That’s just not going to happen,” Langley said.

Eli is a Coushatta Indian. He grew up near the Coushatta reservation in the small town of Elton, Louisiana. His great-grandfather, Jackson Langley, had been chief of the Coushatta tribe. His grandparents spoke Koasati, the tribal language.

“My grandmother, Loris Langley, my apple. She used to always tell me when I was a little kid, an Indian who can’t speak his language is no Indian at all. I remember feeling shame at times because I just such a strong instinct to want to preserve this and to continue to speak it,” Langley said.

When he was a child, Eli’s parents started a Coushatta heritage project. They met with tribal elders who spoke Koasati, created an alphabet and a written language. In high school, Eli enrolled in a summer immersion program and he learned to speak Koasati. What is the state of the Koasati language today?

“There’s probably about 200 speakers,” said Langley.

Are they old? Are they young? Is it a mix?

“I think the last first speaker that spoke it growing is totally fluent is about 33,” Langley said.

Eli made it to Harvard, but he hit a major obstacle. He was determined to use his Koasati language to fulfill his second language requirement at Harvard, but the rules didn’t allow that.

“A language like Koasati has no university, no professor, no nothing. There’s no Koasati studies. I mean, it’s a small endangered language,” Langley said.

After three semesters and constant denials, he took a year off from college.

“At what point are we going to say a language is a language? And Harvard does not get to decide which languages are relevant and worthy of study,” said Langley.

The university eventually changed its position. Eli proved he could speak, write, and translate the native language of his ancestors. He got the credits and he graduated in the spring of 2021.

“My name is Eli Langley. I’m very happy to be here today. Harvard College, it was the first time a Native American tribal language had been recognized for credit in Harvard’s 400 year history,” said Langley.

So it really changed the culture you think?

“It’s different now. Native kids that that go to Harvard College can learn their own language for credit and not have to learn a European language or other language instead,” Langley said.

Eli Langley hopes his experience will help empower future Native American students to embrace and preserve their own languages and heritage.

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