Being able to speak the Coushatta language has been important to Eli Langley since he was a child. So was attending Harvard University, which may have seemed like an impossible goal for a young Native American growing up in Louisiana.
ivy league goal
Eli Langley says he started talking about going to Harvard University when he was in the seventh grade. He recalls getting a few laughs, “A lot of people said no Indian kid from Elton is going to Harvard. That’s just not gonna happen.” 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.
the importance of the coushatta language
Koasati, the language of the Coushatta Tribe, was first language of Eli’s grandparents. “My grandmother, Loris Langley, used to always tell me when I was a little kid, that an Indian who can’t speak his language is no Indian at all,” Eli recalls. He adds, “I remember feeling shame at times, because I had such a strong instinct to want to preserve this and to continue to speak it.”
saving the coushatta language
When he was a child, Eli’s parents started a Coushatta Heritage Project. They met with tribal elders who spoke Koasati and created an alphabet and a written language. In high school, Eli enrolled in a summer immersion program and he learned to speak Koasati. Eli estimates that there are about 200 Koasati speakers today. He believes he is the youngest at age 24.
Eli proved his doubters wrong when he got accepted into Harvard. But he hit an obstacle when Harvard’s rules for taking a second required language conflicted with Eli’s determination to use his Koasati language for credit. He lobbied hard to try to convince Harvard to change its rules. “A language like Koasati has no university, no professor,” Eli says. “There’s no Koasati studies. It’s a small endangered language.”
A coushatta at harvard featured on tv
frustration at harvard
After trying unsuccessfully for three semesters to change the language rules, Eli took a year off from college. He had strong feelings about his request, saying, “At what point are we gonna say a language is a language? And Harvard does not get to decide which languages are relevant and worthy of study.”
a victory at harvard for the coushatta language
The Ivy League university eventually changed its position. Eli proved he could speak, write, and translate the native language of his ancestors. He got the language credits and he graduated in the spring of 2021. During his graduation ceremony at Harvard, he greeted his fellow classmates in the Koasati language. It was the first time that Harvard had agreed to let an undergraduate student get credit for studying a Native American tribal language.
The rule change may now benefit other students who wish to study their Native languages, or even American sign language. “It’s different now,” Eli says. “Native kids that go to Harvard College can learn their own language for credit and not have to learn a European language instead.” Eli Langley hopes his experience will help empower future Native American students to embrace and preserve their own languages and heritage.
Click here to read more about the Coushatta’s language and see the Koasati alphabet and common words.