Muscogee Nation Fights Back Against COVID, Preserving Tradition

When I was growing up my hero was my grandmother, Margie Shipley. I called her “Nanny,” and so did just about everybody else who knew her. I soaked up every quip, every Bible verse, every turn of phrase … if she dropped crumbs of knowledge I was there to happily pick up the scraps.

But I especially noticed her face light up when she spoke of our Muscogee Creek heritage. Little phrases and nuances of the Muscogee language would find their way into our English. Even though I felt it instinctively, Nanny would remind me it was that language and that heritage that made us who we are.

We were heirs to something so special and unique that it wasn’t enough to celebrate it, we had to learn it, preserve it and pass it on. Nearly every Native elder I know, no matter which tribe they may belong to, has talked about fears that one day their culture may be lost. Nanny is no different.

COVID-19 and the Muscogee Nation Response

Today, I’m the press secretary and director of Communications for our tribe, the Muscogee Nation. We are America’s fourth largest tribe with more than 90,000 citizens. And as in many instances in our past, our survival as a people and a culture has been threatened once again by sickness and disease. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our resolve in numerous ways. As a tribal government we have had to get creative with our service delivery to citizens, ensuring that essential departments like Child Care, Elder Nutrition and Food Distribution continue to operate while limiting staff to adhere to social distancing and contact-tracing protocols.

We have developed immediate aid programs to deliver food security and direct financial assistance to citizens, provided elder care packages to our most vulnerable and encouraged diligence to strict safety measures in our messaging efforts. Our Department of Health took an aggressive approach in mitigation efforts, developing triage tents outside of our community hospitals and clinics to minimize spread, and providing rapid testing to our surrounding communities. All of these endeavors were to protect our people and our communities. Still, the virus inevitably found its way in.

Ensuring Muscogee Culture Lives On

Muscogee cultural tradition is from time immemorial. Muscogee stomp dance, medicine, songs and language—there are no dates you can reference for when they were given to us. They were given to us by the Creator. Our elders have this knowledge within them and mostly, it is kept there.

We have seen textbooks revise history, or exclude it altogether. We have seen creative liberties taken with audio and video recordings. I’ve been interviewed several times on this topic. When I’m asked why we are so inclined to share this knowledge only via oral history passed down at the ceremonial grounds, my answer is that we’ve shared enough to know that we have to be protective.

In the past few months we’ve lost too many that hold this knowledge. Ceremonial mekkos, or “Chiefs” of each ground, and medicine makers, language speakers and teachers of our cultural ways, grandmothers and grandfathers—all have walked on. They leave an irreplaceable hole in our Nation.

As I’ve said before, these people were living, breathing encyclopedias. Nowhere else on Earth could you find what they had to share. Thankfully, the teachings of our elders also implore us to keep going, without looking back. A mantra that was most certainly born on the Trail of Tears and that still rings true today. Their life and legacy has put a renewed focus on preservation efforts and instilled a desire to absorb as much culture as possible in our youth. All hope is not lost.

The Tier 1 vaccine group put an emphasis on elders, language speakers, first responders and teachers.

The Nation has begun a determined vaccination campaign that has already seen more than 7,000 citizens administered. The Tier 1 group put an emphasis on elders, language speakers, first responders and teachers. At the Nation, we have used effective messaging and a grassroots approach to reach as many citizens in this group as possible.

Understandably, many elders are wary of government vaccination. They are not too far removed from stories of coordinated genocide. For us it was very important to show them that this vaccine is safe, and necessary to fight this deadly virus. We identified individuals in the community that held a certain level of trust and respect among citizens and made sure they were shown receiving their doses.

We have held three drive-thru mass vaccination events to cast as wide a net as possible, and each have received high praise from the community and local media on being well organized and planned. We are seeing encouraging numbers from our Department of Health, with positivity rate percentages dropping. And we’re encouraging all tribal members to resist COVID fatigue and, whether vaccinated or not, to continue adhering to the guidelines that keep us and our loved ones safe.

So what about Nanny? She’s still here! And as you can imagine she’s awfully proud of me and the work that I do. It never would have happened without her. Our elders show us the way, if we would only be attentive enough to really listen. We shouldn’t wait until they are gone to wonder about all the things we could have learned.

They’re here now. Beautiful treasure chests of culture and history that give us something new every time we visit. To reciprocate, we must give them the gift of pressing on, sharing and living out our culture to the fullest. If we don’t act, speak and live Muscogee, then we cease to exist anyway.             

Jason Salsman is press secretary and director of Communications for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the fourth largest tribe in the United States, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.