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Native American Languages Act, 30 years and counting

Teacher Rita Gopher, far left, in the PECS immersion classroom on a typical day since returning to campus. (Courtesy photo)

Congress passed the Native American Languages Act in 1990 to support and protect the rights of Native Americans to use their languages. The passage of the bill allowed tribes throughout the country, including the Seminole Tribe, to work to ensure their languages survive.

Brighton’s Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School created its immersion program in 2015 with the goal of creating Creek speakers from infancy. At the time, there were only 30 or 40 Creek speakers in the tribe.

The program staff includes three elders – Jennie Shore, Alice Sweat and Emma Fish – and five second language learners – Jade Osceola, Rita Gopher, Jewel Lavatta, Rita Youngman and Janae Braswell.

Today the program is comprised of the same babies and toddlers who started with the program, but now six are in first grade, two are in kindergarten and three are preschool age. The impact of the program has had a profound effect on the children and their families.

“A lot more language has been brought into the home,” said Osceola, who runs the program. “We have created our own family unit; they do everything together, even outside of school. The speak Creek outside of school and go to birthday parties and sports events together. It’s impacted them in a major way.”

Like everything else in the tribe, the immersion program shut down when the pandemic hit. The students went from eight hours of language a day to none. The dynamic of kids not seeing the elders every day affected the program. Osceola fought to open the program’s doors even though the rest of PECS was closed during the pandemic.

“The rest of the school isn’t working to save a struggling language,” she said. “The elders aren’t getting any younger and we needed to get the kids back together with them.”

The immersion program is back at school in person, more than a year after it closed. Osceola has seen some backsliding, but is confident they will catch up soon.

“The kids are picking it back up, it’s almost like we never left,” Osceola said. “We’ve had our struggles, but as a whole they were excited to see each other and speak their language again.”

The plan for the program is to keep the children together throughout their school years at PECS, but Osceola said they take it one year at a time.

“It’s never been done before,” she said. “We are putting language first.”

That isn’t to say the students don’t learn academic subjects, including math, science, social studies and English. Every subject is taught in Creek, except English which is taught by an English teacher.

“Our job is to do all the work from diapers to food to day to day operations,” Osceola said of herself and the other adults. “The elders’ job is to talk, talk, talk. They correct grammar and guide them in the direction the language should be used. It’s a natural thing and they take on a grandma role.”

The kids embrace the culturally driven program. Osceola hopes that as they get older, they will take ownership of the language and continue to use it. For now, the group of immersion students are isolated from the rest of PECS students.

“Once they leave the class, it’s all English,” Osceola said. “They have the rest of their lives to learn it, English isn’t going anywhere. They are learning Creek now. No one and nothing will keep us from saving our language.”

Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School immersion students have returned to in-person classroom learning. (Courtesy photo)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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