Preserving the Language of Tribal Elders: Documentation of Creek (Muscogee) as Spoken within the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma

Hello! My name is Sarah Fredrick and I am a double Linguistics and Psychology major at W&M interested in the field of linguistic documentation and revitalization. Language documentation aims to provide a comprehensive record of the linguistic practices of a speech community. Linguists in this field seek to provide descriptions of under-documented and endangered languages by collecting and analyzing primary linguistic data through work with native speakers.

To let you know a little more about my project, this research will aid in the documentation of the Creek (Muscogee) language, which is spoken within the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Creek is an endangered language with fewer than 1,000 speakers.  However, efforts are being taken within the Seminole Nation to ensure that the language lives on.  Within the community in which I will be working, members have recently founded a language immersion school, called the Pumvhakv School.  Within the school, children are taught in Creek, and may become the first members of their families in generations to fluently speak the language. Professor Jack Martin from William & Mary has been advising the school, and it is through his participation that I became involved with the project.

My research aims to accomplish three primary goals: to interview and record fluent speakers for the purposes of linguistic documentation and revitalization, to compile and  musically transcribe a collection of Creek hymns, and to analyze the history and cultural significance of music within the Seminole Nation.

1.) The first goal will involve recording and producing videotaped interviews with community members. The interviews would record Creek as it is used by native-speaking tribal members. For example, this past summer, when I had the opportunity to travel with Professor Martin to the Seminole Nation, we recorded a video of tribal member Linda Sulphur Bear making lye. In the video Ms. Bear goes through the step-by-step process of producing lye while narrating her actions in Creek. The video is now available online, with the option of subtitles in both English and Muscogee. This is the ideal final product for all interviews. These video interviews help to document language and perpetuate the culture of the people of the Seminole Nation. In addition, videos such as this may be used as teaching materials within the immersion school.

2.) Moving on to the next two research goals, you might be asking ‘where does music fit in with all of this?’ Music has always been an important part of my life. I love to listen to, practice, perform, and write music, so when it came time to design a research project I looked for a way to incorporate music into it. While visiting the Seminole Nation with Professor Martin in the summer of 2014, we were fortunate enough to capture several audio recordings of tribal elder Juanita McGirt. These recordings were of Creek hymns. Since that summer Ms. McGirt has continued to record an increasing number of hymns and the figure now totals well over fifty. I began work on an independent study in the Fall of 2014, focusing on compiling and musically transcribing a minimum of ten hymns. I now plan to continue recording hymns from a variety of sources, transcribe them, obtain English translations of the hymns, hold sessions with tribal members in order to procure feedback on and corrections to my transcriptions, and compile all of my research into one easily-accessible document. This documentation of hymns could then be used as a revitalizing and teaching material within the community. At this current point in time, no efforts within this community have been made to engage in this sort of ethnomusicological linguistic documentation. My research is the first of its kind!

3.) Lastly, I will be looking at the place of music within the culture of the people of the Seminole Nation. This part of my research combines elements of both linguistics and ethnomusicology. Approaching linguistic documentation through the lens of ethnomusicology means that I will be looking at the interaction of language and music as a social process. I hope to answer questions such as on what occasions are hymns and other songs sung? (religious, celebratory, ceremonial, etc), by whom are the hymns/songs performed?, and  from where did they originate and for how long have they been a part of society?  I also hope to address questions related to the linguistic aspect of song. For example, are there certain semantic or syntactic patterns that repeat themselves across hymns/songs? What common syllables, words, themes, and structures are there in the music? How is music related to music retention? and How can songs be best used as a tool for language revitalization? 

It is my hope that this project will aid in the continued documentation and revitalization of the Muscogee Creek language and culture of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. I am looking forward to beginning my work on this project, and I will be posting updates every step of the way! Please feel free to ask me any questions and/or give me any comments you may have. Post your thoughts below my blog entries or email me at

Lastly, I want to write a special note of thanks to Mr. Tim Renick and the Dewey Renick Memorial Award for funding my research. Without your gracious contribution this project would not be possible!

Thanks for reading!








  1. kbmcelheny says:

    Wow, this sounds like such an interesting project to be a part of. I would love to know more about how Professor Martin became involved with the school and the Seminole people. Is it largely a community driven project or did the motivation come from somewhere else?