University of Oklahoma Creek Language Professor Melanie Frye teaches the Muscogee Nation’s native language for a living, but one of the youngest fluent speakers she knows is a 52-year-old man. Not a single child she knows, Frye said, speaks Mvskoke fluently.
Frye, a member of the Muscogee Nation, reflected on her experiences teaching Mvskoke in front of an audience of roughly 40 students, humanities faculty and community members during an event yesterday with Emory University’s College Language Center.
“I always have to talk about relationships when it comes to language,” Frye said. “Learning anything is not just you learning on your own. There’s people that contribute to your learning, to your knowledge.”
This is the University’s latest effort in deepening ties with the Muscogee Nation, which was forced to relinquish its approximately 4.3 million acres of land between the Flint and Ocmulgee Rivers — including the land Emory sits on today — to the U.S. government in the 1821 Treaty of Indian Springs. The state of Georgia comprises 38 million acres, and more than 10% of the state today consists of land relinquished in the treaty.
Frye detailed the history of Native displacement in the region, explaining that the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the Muscogee people to relocate from Georgia to Oklahoma. Now, nearly 200 years later, Frye teaches Mvskoke to University of Oklahoma students and younger children during a series of three-day youth language camps. She discussed the specific methods she uses to teach the language in her introductory college course, which includes memorizing 50 nouns and 24 infinitive verbs. Frye joked that she “felt so bad” for her students, tasked with conjugating a long list of words.
“We want to instill the confidence and they know who they are and where they come from and know that we have our language still for them to continue to learn,” Frye said.
Frye explained that groups of people are more easily accepted if they have a distinct language. She said she believes this is especially important for those currently living on the land on which Mvskoke was once spoken, which is why she chose to give her talk at Emory.
Professor of Italian Pedagogy and Emory Language Center Director Christine Ristaino said that the center is “doing everything possible” to support bringing the Muscogee language to Emory. Last semester, the University held the second annual Muscogee Teach-In, where tribal members lectured on various subjects in the Emory Student Center. In February 2023, the Mellon Foundation awarded Emory and the College of the Muscogee Nation a $2.4 million grant to establish a Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Emory further established the Indigenous Language Path Working Group, which aims to conduct research into Muscogee history on the University’s Atlanta and Oxford campuses, as well as erect “physical reminders” in these locations that reflect this past. The group has arranged listening sessions in 2022, but there have been no major public updates recently.
Ristaino called yesterday’s event “beautiful.”
“This event accomplished what the humanities should accomplish and that’s bringing so many different disciplines together to have a conversation,” Ristaino said.
Linguistics Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies Marjorie Pak emphasized the value of gaining different perspectives, especially in language, stating that regardless of birthplace, people tend to develop skewed views of other cultures on Earth.
“Having that broader perspective just makes you sort of more grounded in the world and also makes you better to other people,” Pak said.