American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Muskogean Language

The parent of several tribal languages originally spoken in what is today the Southeastern United States, the remnants of Muskogean language now exist primarily in Oklahoma and, to a much lesser extent, in Florida and Alabama. The Muskogean language family evolved over thousands of years to a point that it was the primary language spoken among the people of the southeastern Woodlands until the arrival of Hernando de Soto in 1540. Modern descendents of the Muskogean-speaking peoples include the Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw peoples, as well as smaller groups in independent towns who had treaties with the U.S. government prior to the removal and the formation of those contemporary nations, such as the Alabamas, Apalachees, Hitchitis, Mikasukis, and Koasatis.

Subsequent to the war between Creek traditionalists, known as the Red Sticks, and the U.S. government that culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814), many Muscogee speakers migrated to Florida, where other Creek and Hitchiti speakers already had moved due to disenchantment with Native leaders who had sided with colonial agents or due to European encroachment on aboriginal lands. These people became collectively known as the Seminoles, itself a word derived from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning "wild" or "untamed."

By 1828, many Muscogee (Creek) people realized that removal from their Alabama and Georgia homelands was inevitable, causing roughly three thousand Creeks to move to Indian Territory and establish homes in the contemporary area of Tulsa. In 1836 and 1837, the United States enforced the removal of the remaining Creeks to Indian Territory on what became known as the Long Walk, in which nearly 40 percent of the 24,000 people who were compelled to make the journey died. A second group of forced migrants settled in the lower Creek nation of Indian Territory, which remains a relatively rural area in the early twenty-first century. In this area, the Muscogee language was still used widely at churches and ceremonial grounds by speakers beyond the age of forty. However, due to attempts to erase Native cultures during the twentieth century, the number of Muscogee (Creek) speakers has been dwindling. By 2000, the language was being taught at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma, and several materials are available in the Muscogee (Creek) language.

Following the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), roughly 4,000 Seminoles were deported via boats across the Gulf Mexico and up the Mississippi River to Indian Territory, where land for them had been set aside by the United States adjacent to the Muscogee (Creek) people. The Third Seminole War (1855–1858) proved too costly for the United States to continue, leaving about 300 Seminole people in the Florida Everglades as the remaining speakers of Muscogee in the area. Today, the Muscogean language is still spoken by some Seminole elders in Oklahoma, but by the Seminoles' own admission, the language is slowly slipping away. Hopes of rejuvenating the language now rely on local public schools that are introducing Seminole children to the language.

The Choctaw nation of Oklahoma has also placed a significant emphasis on preserving its branch of the Muskogean language. By 2005, the tribe was offering courses by certified teachers in high schools, colleges, and community centers, as well as via Internet and satellite distribution. The Choctaws were the first of the five major Southeastern groups removed to Indian Territory from their traditional homelands in Alabama and Mississippi. Choctaws who did not move are now known as Mississippi Choctaw and are the keepers of much traditional culture, including the language that has been lost by the Oklahoma Choctaws. Very close to the Choctaw language branch of the Muskogean linguistic family is the Chickasaw language, at one time the language of commerce along the lower portion of the Mississippi River where the Chickasaws resided before their removal to Oklahoma beginning in 1837. In 2005, the Chickasaws paired a fluent speaker with a learning facilitator at sites throughout the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma to teach the language.

Hugh W. Foley, Jr.


Further Reading
Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. "Language." Available at: http://www.chickasaw.net. Accessed May 28, 2005.; Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. "Culture" and "History." Available at: http://www.choctawnation.com. Accessed May 28, 2005.; Gouge, Earnest. 2004. Totkv Mocvse (New Fire). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Innes, Pamela, Linda Alexander, and Bertha Tilkens. 2004. Beginning Creek: Mvskoke Emponvkv. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Martin, Jack B., and Margaret McKane Mauldin. 2000. A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee: With Notes on the Florida and Oklahoma Seminole Dialects of Creek, xiii –xiv. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. "Language." Available at: http://www.choctaw.org. Accessed May 28, 2005.; Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma. "Creek History." Available at: http://www.muscogeenation-nsn.gov. Accessed January 11, 2007.; Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Available at: http://www.seminolenation.com/. Accessed May 28, 2005.; Seminole Tribe of Florida. "Culture." Available at: http://www.seminoletribe.com/culture/language.shtml. Accessed May 28, 2005.
 

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