BRIGHTON — Language is a core component of culture. For some members of the Seminole Tribe, this particular component is the Creek language, and one student has dedicated a large part of his life to understanding its significance.
Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School sixth-grader Charlie Armstrong won first place in the school’s Creek spelling bee May 15. The competitive spelling champion said learning how to speak Creek is not just for the accolades; it’s to preserve the language.
“The Creek language is very vital to the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” the 12-year-old said. “Without a language, you’re not a tribe…The language is the heart of any tribe and we need to try to preserve it.”
According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Creek is an endangered language, with only approximately 5,000 speakers as of 2011. In the Seminole Tribe of Florida, statistics from Open Language Archives show that less than 200 people fluently speak the language. Even though Armstrong is not Native American and is a native English speaker, he is learning Creek at PECS to help combat this statistic.
The charter school teaches Creek language and culture to students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Culture instructors continuously speak to students in the language, with minimal English during class hours. Along with learning Creek sentence conjugation, reading and comprehension, students also learn cultural activities, including patchwork, beadwork, carving and cooking.
Armstrong did not deny that learning Creek is challenging. In fact, he openly admits to preferring English spelling bees because they are much easier and there are more opportunities on a national level. Unlike English, Creek contains 19 letters and there are specific ways to pronounce them individually and together. Armstrong said he studies throughout the academic year and prior to spelling bees to thoroughly understand the language. With consistent immersion and studying, he said he can now communicate and understand much of the language.
“It makes me sad to see that some kids don’t try [to learn the language],” he explained. “Even though I’m not Native American, I want to try to teach others so we can try to save it.”
Although the spelling bees are over for this year, Armstrong’s dedication to learning an essential language of the Tribe is not. He plans to continue studying and learning the Creek language, as well as competing in more spelling bees in the future.