Elevating the Oral Tradition: How Indigenous Language Activists Help Shape Learning at Harvard

December 17, 2019
HDS alum Marcus Briggs-Cloud
Marcus 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 United States.

But Briggs-Cloud, 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 underway—what he called the “sacred work of generating new, fluent speakers.” And that’s a story worth telling.

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.

Ann Braude, 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 said.

Opening Reception of "Revitalizing Indigenous Languages"
Professor 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 rhetoric—whether a passing comment or a piece of scholarship—that puts Native people into an exclusively historical perspective.

“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 and Richard 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, he said. 

“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 said.

“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 added.

Richard Grounds
Richard Grounds at the Yuchi Knowledge Bowl. / Photo: Euchee/Yuchi Language Project

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 assault—in which the plan for us was to disappear—the 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.”

by Cody Hooks, HDS correspondent