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Participating with Nature

An article by James Treat about the Mvskoke Indian language
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Anyone who studies traditional ecological knowledge learns to appreciate the vitality of indigenous languages.

"The way we talk about a place or other entity reflects how we feel, how we see, how we understand, and most important, how we think in reference to it," writes Tewa educator Gregory Cajete. "Language itself is a reflection of how we organize and perceive the world," but it also "conditions the mind toward particular ends. . . . Until recently, the power of language to condition thought either toward participation with nature or away from it has been largely ignored."

"Native languages echo the natural reality of a universe that is alive and creative," and they are "intimately tied to the landscape that has inspired their development."

There is ample evidence of participation with nature preserved in este-cate em opunvkv, the Mvskoke language. The months of the year are named for important moments in the annual round of subsistence: seasonal observations and activities related to agricultural production, but also times for gathering the fruit of undomesticated plants. An older way of life is signified by em vliketv that define Mvskoke kinship and by opvnkv performed at Mvskoke ceremonial grounds: various clans and dances mostly named for animals, many of which provided sustenance to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Even the phrase este-cate em opunvkv, literally "red people, their talk," uses sensory metaphors—visual and aural—to describe itself.

The Mvskoke language is an organic element of a living landscape. As Cajete says, it is "more than a code; it is a way of participating with each other and the natural world."
Mvskoke words were planted on paper in the 1730s by Salzburger settlers living near the Savannah River. This written tongue grew sporadically in the old country, but Mvskoke literacy really blossomed after removal to Indian Territory, largely because generaleducation was conducted in the Mvskoke language. "As a result of the missionary schools," writes linguist Jack Martin, "many Creeks and Seminoles were literate by the end of the nineteenth century." They wrote letters, laws, constitutions, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and other materials in the Mvskoke language, many of which have been archived at the University of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Historical Society, the University of Oklahoma, and the Gilcrease Museum.

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Written Mvskoke withered in the wake of Oklahoma statehood. The spoken word fell into disuse more gradually, but "by the 1970s the Creek language was in serious decline." This prompted the recording and publication of various language materials—first by Mvskoke citizens, then by professional linguists. The latest, and perhaps most important, of these post-English resources was authored by Martin with the assistance of Margaret Mauldin and Juanita McGirt: A Grammar of Creek (Muskogee) offers the most comprehensive analysis of the language to date.

Like many American Indian languages, Mvskoke is an action-oriented medium whose grammar revolves around verbs. "A great deal of information can be conveyed with a single word in Creek," because the language has "a complex system of grades" in verb stems, which are further modified by a large number of prefixes and suffixes. Conjugating a Mvskoke verb is not for the faint of heart; the sample paradigms in Martin's book run to 13 pages listing more than 350 forms of the stem wvnvy-, "tie." European languages, on the other hand, are generally more noun-oriented and tend to frame reality as an assortment of objects. To put this more succinctly: English emphasizes the things being tied, whereas Mvskoke focuses attention on the act of tying.

The practical significance of this distinction comes into view if we recall the history of Western environmental science.

Like other modern disciplines, the scientific field of ecology has evolved considerably over the past century or so. It originated in an ancient tradition of Greek philosophy that regarded the natural world as static and stable, a worldview that was finally challenged by Charles Darwin. The naturalist forerunners of ecology concentrated on exploration and description, constructing elaborate taxonomies of plant andanimal life. Early ecologists generally studied discrete entities: species, populations, habitats, communities. Only with the rise of a systems approach, which examines the movement of energy and nutrients through the various components of an ecosystem, has professional ecology developed an appreciation for complexity and interrelatedness comparable to that already intuited by indigenous peoples.

This ancestral awareness has often manifested in languages that stress actions rather than objects, connections rather than separations. While modern Mvskokes have mostly adapted to consumer culture, a more viable means of participating with nature can still be found in the language of Mvskoke country.

James Treat writes about environmental issues for the Muscogee Nation News and teaches courses on indigenous traditions at the University of Illinois. You can find more information about Mvskoke country, including an archive of previous columns, here.