How Indigenous Language Activists
Help Shape Learning at Harvard
Briggs-Cloud, MTS '10, has dedicated his life to revitalizing
his ancestral tongue and the cultural identity it sustains.
/ Photo: Kristie Welsh, HDS staff
When Marcus Briggs-Cloud, MTS '10, began to sing in his native
Muscogee language in the main hall at the Peabody
Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology this past October, it was
a testament to the survival of his community and culture through
centuries of genocidal efforts against indigenous peoples in the
who was there to celebrate the official opening of the museum's
new video installation "Revitalizing Indigenous Languages," aimed
to highlight more than the narrative of survival. There's a grassroots
renewal of indigenous languages underwaywhat he called the
"sacred work of generating new, fluent speakers." And that's a story
The United Nations declared that 2019-20 is the International Year
of Indigenous Languages. The Peabody exhibit came out of conversations
about how to mark the observance and bring to light just how vital
the language schools are to living communities.
Without the Muscogee language, Briggs-Cloud said, his community
cannot carry out the full cycle of rituals that is called for in
their cosmology. "And if we don't perform that ceremony," he said,
"our Muscogee people will perish. That is how imperative language
revitalization is for our community."
While it is important to understand the severity of indigenous
language loss across the globe, it is just as important to move
beyond "all the doomsday" stories in order to highlight and support
the resilience of native communities, said Briggs-Cloud, who is
a co-curator of the exhibit.
The museum exhibit also grew out of relationships that have been
fostered in the decade-old experiment of the Harvard Divinity School
class, "Issues in the Study of Native American Religions," which
seeks to elevate the oral tradition within the text-heavy pedagogies
of the academy.
director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program and Senior Lecturer
on American Religious History at HDS, taught the class again this
fall. It featured five indigenous guest lecturers, including Briggs-Cloud,
who have free rein to share what they consider to be most important
to the study of Native American religions.
"I wanted to find a way to make sure that what is important to
primary stakeholders in Native American religions would be at the
center of the course, and the best way to do that seemed to be to
ask those people to come into the classroom," Braude said.
"By elevating the voices of contemporary indigenous leaders, they
can help scholars of religion think critically about what we are
doing and what we are not taking into account in the process," Braude
Ann Braude speaking at the opening reception of the "Revitalizing
Indigenous Languages" exhibition this past October. / Photo:
Kristie Welsh, HDS staff
Braude does not consider herself an authority on Native American
religions, but rather a co-learner with students who together share
the opportunity to hear from the guest speakers. The class was borne
out of Braude's own process of "unlearning" as a graduate student
and then as a professor in Minnesota.
"My entire graduate education was based on books. If it wasn't
in a book, we did not talk about it much. But when I started to
learn from Native American religious leaders, the first question
I asked them was what reading should I assign. They told me not
to read books. That required me to think about the limitations of
books as the basis of higher education, particularly in study of
religion," Braude said.
So around 2009, with the insistence and help from Briggs-Cloud,
Braude launched the course at Harvard Divinity School.
Aside from Briggs Cloud, the 2019 line-up of guest lecturers also
included Yuchi language activist Richard Grounds and Mashpee Wampanoag
leader Ramona Peters, who also gave a welcome at the 2019
HDS Convocation. Others throughout the fall term were Joseph
P. Gone (Aaniiih-Gros Ventre), Harvard Professor of Anthropology
and of Global Health and Social Medicine and Faculty Director of
the Harvard University Native American Program, and Lisa
Brooks (Abenaki), Professor of English and American Studies
at Amherst College.
Mary Atwood, a third-year Master of Divinity candidate, said that
when it comes to centering of contemporary indigenous voices, "It's
not rocket science to say that is an important part of the educational
project happening here.
"With that so-called scholarly distance, it's too easy to dehumanize
and sterilize whatever you're studying. There's something powerful
about being face to face with people who are scholars and members
of indigenous communities. It demands a different kind of attention
that is important to cultivate in our studies," Atwood said.
Cultivating that sort of engaged and nuanced attention was a formative
experience, said Gavin Prentice, a first-year Harvard College student.
He said he struggles with rhetoricwhether a passing comment
or a piece of scholarshipthat puts Native people into an exclusively
"I try to keep in mind that it's a great experience to go into
these classrooms, to discuss and educate oneself. But at the end
of the day, the purpose of the work is the actual communities,"
he said. "What you're learning has bearing on the living communities."
Thinking about that very question in partnership with Briggs-Cloud
Grounds is what led Braude and the curators at the Peabody to
develop the exhibit on language revitalization.
"They pushed me to think about how Harvard would contribute and
respond to the U.N. declaration," Braude said. "We think of ourselves
as an international leader educationally, but what is our contribution
in light of a pretty monumental crisis of language loss?"
The Yuchi Language Program is just one effort to revitalize indigenous
languages that is featured in the Peabody exhibit. The program,
directed by Grounds, has raised 16 new speakers of the Yuchi language,
"Our indigenous languages are powerful, living languages. But the
historical reality that we are dealing with is that our languages
have been actively suppressed for many generations now," Grounds
"Our languages are the voice of the land. It's important to recognize
the responsibility that comes with sitting on the land of indigenous
communities and to generate institutional structures to support
the living indigenous communities. I believe that it is only as
we work together that we are able to move our languages forwards,"
Grounds at the Yuchi Knowledge Bowl. / Photo: Euchee/Yuchi
Museums, which have historically been places to exhibit colonial
collections, knowledge, and perspective, are re-thinking their relationship
to Native communities.
"In my view, the best use of museum spaces today is serving as
a vehicle for Native people to educate the public about the contemporary
issues that matter the most to their communities," explained Castle
McLaughlin, curator of North American Ethnography at the Peabody,
who helped bring the current co-created exhibit to fruition. "Language
loss is one of the most important issues, since languages encode
not just cultural meanings, but epistemological worlds."
McLaughlin advocates for even more collaboration across the Harvard
campus, she said, "which allows us to marshal energies and resources
towards common goals."
Besides the exhibit, McLaughlin said, a workshop at the Radcliffe
Institute, organized by Braude and Phil
Deloria, Professor of History at Harvard, brought a number of
community leaders and language program directors to discuss the
challenges of language revitalization and to view indigenous language
materials in Harvard's rare book collections.
"We are doing the work of the creator to keep our languages alive,"
Ground said. "I tell our young people that in the face of this colonial
assaultin which the plan for us was to disappearthe
most radical thing you can do in your community and culture is to
go sit with your grandma and learn her language.
"Indian communities are incredibly resilient and resourceful,"
he said. "And I just want to have our children to continue to say
the words of our elders: We are still here."