Can you remember being held by the earth,
encircled by the trees
and speaking the language of the forest?
Sometimes when I experience a breeze-rippled grass pasture or striped, sea-smoothed stones on a beach, or crows riding the wind like kites, I feel that I am reading a language I recognize, but can no longer quite recall. There is something much deeper than what I am seeing, but I cannot quite touch. Although I try to reach for it with photography or video, or struggle to capture and express it through fibre art or a poem, I think that there is something more than the struggle of the artist and poet inside of me for self-expression. That I have lost a fluency in the language of the earth and also a very deep connection. One of the streams of my artwork is the riverjourney in which I am honouring my ancestors, the Mvskoke, and telling our story. I think it may be time to translate some of my poetry into Muscogee and perhaps find a language and a way to express some of what I feel inside.
I belong to the Muscogee tribe of Native Americans. My ancestors were removed to what is now the state of Oklahoma in the 1830’s. My great grandmother, Melindy Philips a full-blooded Muscogee, spoke Muscogee all of her life and very little English. My father Frank could understand but not speak Muscogee. He was born at a time (1919) when he wasn’t proud to have Native American ancestry and was called a ‘half-breed’ by the white and Muscogee kids he grew up with.
Native languages are dying out at an alarming rate in all of the tribal nations. There are a number of reasons for the extinction of American Indian languages but the most common is the boarding school experience from 1870 to the 1930’s. An Indian boarding school refers to one of many schools that were established in the United States during the late 19th century to educate Native American youths according to Euro-American standards. In some areas, these schools were primarily run by missionaries. Especially given the young age of some of the children sent to the schools, they have been documented as traumatic experiences for many of the children who attended them. They were generally forbidden to speak their native languages, taught Christianity instead of their native religions, and in numerous other ways forced to abandon their Indian identity and adopt European-American culture.
This was part of the plan to “Kill the Indian, save the man” and make Indian children assimilate to white society. To this day some have completely forgotten their language; others just did not pass on their language to their offspring or the younger generation. So one could say the plan worked.
Musician Robbie Robertson (The Band) went back to his Mohawk roots in 1998 with a documentary special exploring his musical history in relation to his Native American heritage. “Making A Noise” is also a glimpse into a future where Native Americans are no longer silenced or ignored — culturally, musically or otherwise. As Robertson says in the documentary, “We need to make a noise to make these voices heard”.