Language is more than grammar and spelling. It is tied up in history, culture, and personal identity, according to Nelson Harjo, language and culture instructor at the College of the Muscogee Nation in Okmulgee.
Students of the college’s Muscogee (Creek) language classes presented songs, readings, and conversation demonstrations to show the importance of language preservation on Thursday at the 41st Symposium on the American Indian at Northeastern State University.
The presentation began with a prayer in Muscogee by student Colton Wood. Next, students from the beginning language classes demonstrated conversational phrases such as “Hensci. Estonko?” – which is commonly translated into English as, “Hello. How are you?” But, the students noted, a more precise translation would be, “Hello. Is it well with you?” The difference, they said, is subtle but important.
Intermediate students presented original and traditional stories illustrating Muscogee values and humor. The stories were accompanied by PowerPoint illustrations, with English translations, so audience members could laugh as they read along with student Danny Beaver’s story of the goose who would sing with tobacco in his mouth, which caused him to spit at the children, and Brandi Scott’s story of how rabbit and frog found a way to help each other out on a hot summer night. (Hint: It involves using a lamp made of a frog full of fireflies to light your house instead of building a fire!)
Advanced students Josh Laney and Cassandra Thompson read from the Creek Second Reader “Mvskoke Nakcokv Eskerretv Esvhokkolat.” That textbook was published in 1871 by the American Tract Society, as a way to help Muscogee students learn to read during the early years of American Indian mission and boarding schools (although most schools forbid students to speak or read their native languages). Laney also shared a song he had composed on a handmade bamboo flute as part of Harjo’s flute-making class.
Students from the conversational language class, Miss Indian Oklahoma 2012 Brittany Hill and Jeannie Edwards, presented statements in both Muscogee and English about the importance of language and cultural preservation in their own lives.
“I’m Yankton Sioux from South Dakota, but my dad is full-blood Muscogee (Creek), and he always wanted me to learn the language,” said Hill. “This past two years, I’ve been learning the language and moving up through the language classes. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve been conversing, and it’s really taught me a lot about my Muscogee people. I’m real proud of it. It’s given me a new insight on my dad, and it’s brought me closer to him, and that’s what I’m really thankful for.”
Edwards shared family photos and memories of her tribal community and church, Hickory Ground No. 1 near Henryetta. She began by describing the behavior of Muscogee people when they are together, especially at their traditional churches.
“I remember being at the church grounds from dusk to dawn,” she said. “My family would worship there, and we used to stay there three or four days, from morning until way after midnight. Several cabin-type houses were built by the hands of the men and women church members, and the camphouses provided food and shelter for the members of the Hickory Ground church and the visitors who were always there for spiritual feeding.”
She then showed an old black-and-white photograph of Muscogee people awaiting baptism beside a wide creek.
“Many baptisms took place in the natural waters, in the traditional ways, and I remember observing them,” she said. “The waters would move very quickly, and that was to wash away the sins.”
In closing, she said in Muscogee, “I will always carry these memories with me.”
After Edwards’ presentation, Harjo invited all the students, as well as members of the Muscogee language preservation program, on-stage to sing traditional Muscogee hymns. As the group prepared to sing, Harjo repeated that language classes involve more than learning to speak, read, and write.
“A lot of the students have no clue about their culture or the language. Where they’re living at, the high schools they go to and different things, they’re not around the people like we used to be at one time, so when they come to the college, it’s almost like waking up,” he said. “They begin to realize another part of them that lay dormant for a long time, and once they begin to get into the language and learn more about the culture and their history, they find that they begin to settle down, and it’s easier for them because now they’re not this one person always wondering who the other one was, but they’ve brought the two together, which makes them a little more whole.”
And it’s not an experience that can be found just anywhere.
“If you’ve ever been to Okmulgee, there’s a loop that bypasses the town, and they have the pole out there with the fish on top, and they play ball out there, the women and the men,” he said, referring to the stickball game played by several southeastern tribes.
“As I pulled up on the curve and topped the little hill there, they were all out there playing. The girls were running and grabbing the ball. You could see guys getting pushed down. You could see them running with the sticks and everything, and I just sat back and took pictures and I thought this would be the only place they could enjoy that. This would be the only place they could come and learn about that, to be able to sink back into who they are. And it made me feel good to be a part of that.”
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