Anyone who has tried to learn a second language soon realizes irregular verbs are one of the greatest challenges.
It may be easy enough to understand the concept of “I walk, you walk, he or she walks, they walk.” It’s more difficult when the verb is irregular, like “to be,” and you have to learn “I am, you (singular) are, he or she is, you (plural) are, they are.”
Complicate that even further when the new language brings concepts that had not been part of your reality — ways to measure time and numbers, or an organized system of religion. That was the dilemma facing the Mvskoke (Creek) and other Indigenous tribes when confronted with European colonists’ ways of thinking.
Jay Fife, a Mvskoke citizen majoring in American studies at Yale University, discussed issues arising from that confrontation during the 48th annual Symposium on the American Indian at Northeastern State University. This year the symposium is virtual, held online because of COVID-19. It concludes Saturday afternoon with a virtual powwow.
For Fife, Mvskoke is a second language, although he wishes it otherwise. Experts estimate there are only 250 to 500 fluent Mvskoke first-language speakers alive today.
“Our elders deserve more attention, as they serve as our living history books,” he said.
The language has endured many heinous circumstances, among them boarding schools and Christianity, Fife said. A study of the language and its history must be conducted in conjunction with studying the colonization and Christian missionaries who came to the Mvskoke homeland.
A group of Protestant refugees known as the Salzburgers were the first to come to the Savannah area in the 1730s. One of their leaders, Von Reck, devoted his time to studying plants and animals of the area and learning the Mvskoke words for them. He provided the first written documentation of the language. He wasn’t interested in preaching the gospel, just documenting, according to Fife.
He said three dates are instrumental in understanding the evolution of the language and culture under the colonists: 1834, 1860 and 1870. The first came during the Trail of Tears, showing the influence of missionaries in the homeland and in the new Indian Territory land.
“Christianity started the genocide of our language,” he said, explaining how the grammatical work published during that time shaped how outsiders and Mvskoke speakers alike saw their world. The language became more patriarchal.
“The Indians are dying and we are going to document everything that they do,” the grammar published at that time said. The missionaries wanted to Christianize the people they considered doomed and give them a decent Christian burial.
Fife made his distaste obvious for efforts of these missionaries to eliminate his people while preserving elements of their culture as if they were museum exhibits.
“As a Mvskoke speaker and as one who attends the ceremonial grounds, every word he says I refute,” he said of missionary and grammar author E.F. Buckner.
In 1870, after the Civil War, the Mvskoke boarding schools were founded, named after tribal towns rather than individual missionaries as they were in other tribes. The schools further increased education by colonists.
Mvskoke is a complicated language, one difficult to learn and full of nuances, according to Fife.
“Our language has undergone a lot of violence, a lot of change,” he said.
It’s up to the elders who survive, and the younger people who are learning and endeavoring to preserve it, to ensure its future.
Many of these same people work to carry on the Mvskoke religion, based on the land, birds, animals, and carried on through tribal towns and ceremonial grounds. These also have decreased dramatically — from dozens down to a handful. The chief ceremonial event each year is the green corn ceremony.
“Christianity is a learned world view, like an irregular verb is in language,” Fife said.
He and many other Mvskoke people don’t need church to connect them to their land and their culture.
“To be Mvskoke, we must embrace Mvskoke values,” said Fife.