Preserving Creek Linguistic Heritage: An Interview With Gloria McCarty

Apr 16, 2013

Even though parts of Oklahoma were known as Indian Territory in the 19th and early 20th centuries, today only a few thousand citizens speak the Creek language. University of Oklahoma Creek instructor Gloria McCarty and her family are a few of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject.

Gloria McCarty, Creek language instructor at the University of Oklahoma.
Credit Ana Noshpal

I am Creek. That is my identity. There is a saying that “Culture is in the language and the language is the culture” and they are inseparable. As a Creek person, I always wanted to know my language, but I didn’t have a lot of exposure to it. I didn’t have the opportunity to be around that as much as I would have preferred. As a child I grew up in Oklahoma City, so I would be around during the weekend when we would traveled to the Eastern part of the State where the Creek churches are and I would be more around my relatives. But, I was always interested it just was not accessible where I was growing up. My sister and I use to bother my mother for things like teaching us the alphabet, teaching us a word here and there, and she did that. There were some things that I knew that I didn’t even realize that I knew until much later.

I know that your mother start teaching Creek languages here at OU, and now you are continuing that together. You are working on a book, which was really hard at times for people who wanted to learn this language, because your mother only used the things that she had learn from her family before.

Most people don’t realize that there were no recourses for her when she began and she decided one day (and this is like a family story know) as she was having her coffee and she had been knowing for years and had been saying for years that our language is in danger, danger of loosing the language. It’s dying. None of people are speaking it and her friends and our little community would say, “Well, we speak it in our house.” They couldn’t see the danger until it was right above us.

She says, “I was in the kitchen and I was drinking my coffee  and I was thinking to myself, why don they do something about that?” And she said, “I thought to my self,  well, who are they? And of course, when she began asking that question she was talking like everyone does about our national or tribal government. But, you have to have a vision to do something and from that moment her vision began. She says, “I made the commitment right than and for the rest of my life, I will work to revitalize my language” and now the joke in the family is, she says “I made that commitment in a full stomach not knowing what hardships I would have to keep my promise”. 

I remember when I start learning English everything looked impossible to me. The pronunciation, spelling the grammar…everything was so different from my native language. But the most important thing that I learned was the more you are surrounded with the people who speak that language the more you learn. In what way you could increase the number of people who speak this language?

Oh, well that is the dream. What we came to realize is that no individual can do it. The only meaningful language revitalization indigenous languages that are in danger, the only meaningful work that ever comes, is from a grassroots level. And that mean that it has to come from the speaker themself  and it has to be multigenerational. Families have to be involved. So it can’t be just a parent alone working on language. It needs to be a parent a child and a grandchildren. And it has to continue like all tradition culture that were handed down .

Credit Ana Noshpal

Could you maybe find some similarities with some other foreign languages?

It’s kind of funny thing but, we used to print T-shirts with little mottos for each of our classes and I would be in the public and couple of times a Russian person would stop me (I think it was because of all the Vs” and would have that puzzled look and then they would say “What is That?” and that I would tell them and they would laugh and they would say, “I though it was Russian”.

I met people at the University who speak other languages and they would tell me “That doesn’t even look like Russian”, but some other people would tell me that sound like a soft Russian. I can’t speak to that, not being a Russian speaker but if that’s the case a soft Russian must be a beautiful thing.

Good stories always come from good experience, but the real one. You made a story for kids based on your one experience.

The title of the book is a “Pocket full of cheese”, a true story.   It started as an assignment to write a children book. It took me a while to pick a story to tell but I decided that I want to do a original story and I was imagining that I would draw stick figures because I’m not an artist and that it’s just going to be a simple little book. I didn’t think that would be more than few pages long. But, it turned to a monster project and it took me several months to finish and I didn’t have any photographs to work from, so it was all from my memory from a certain day in a fall when I was a four year old. The two main characters in the story are my younger and older sisters and of course my mother and they all love it. I was so happy that they are not angry of my depiction of any of them. Because you’ll never know! But it is a true story and it was a very sweet day that did happen exactly like that.

Gloria and her husband Michael are currently working on a documentary about Indian churches and the tradition of Creek grave houses. By mixing past history with present-day culture, this family hopes to pass their own Creek identity to future generations. 

Want to learn Creek? Start here.