Relational Accountability and Place-Based Learning: Emory Students Participate in 31st Annual Ocmulgee Indigenous Celebration

Emory students gathered at the stairs of the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park.

We start with gratitude, saying “mvto” (thank you) to the Este Mvskokvlke (Muscogee People) for welcoming Emory students, faculty, and families to one of their most sacred sites in their ancestral homeland at the 31st Ocmulgee Indigenous Celebration on September 17, 2023.

Traveling from Emory to Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park for a special place-based and community-engaged learning experience, a first-time interdisciplinary cohort of thirty-five faculty and students from Dr. Debra Vidali’s Anthropology 190–Land, Life, and Place, Dr. Loren Michael Mortimer’s History 285–Introduction to Native American History, Heidi Aklaseaq Senungetuk’s Music 460RW–North American Indigenous Music and Modernity, and Emory’s Native American Student Association participated in a vibrant celebration of Southeastern Native American cultures and heritage. This marks the first time Emory University organized an official trip to the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park.

Emory students experienced a diverse array of activities that showcased the rich heritage of the region’s Indigenous peoples. Traditional cultural crafts, captivating storytelling sessions, and educational programs provided students with meaningful connections to the living histories and thriving communities of diverse southeastern Native American people. “This was my first time at the Ocmulgee Mounds,” says senior Matowacipi Horse (C24’). “This was an incredible experience seeing the natural landscape, even in the ways it has been recreated to pay tribute to the original ancestral homeland. I think it was a beautiful step in the work of reparations. Seeing the stories–and even trying the food–it was incredible.”

This celebration represents a collaboration with the Muscogee Nation and the Ocmulgee Mounds Association to enact Mvskoke sovereignty and educate visitors about the Indigenous presence on the land. “It was really cool how we got to interact,” reflected Mira Maukadam (C27’), “and explore the mounds.” 

Today, the mounds are a reminder of Muscogee origins, a site of exchange, and a symbol of their continued presence in their ancestral homelands. Marta Yavorsky Delgado (C27’) said “I loved seeing all the historic sites and all the trails.” Entering the mounds ground, history and anthropology students read interpretive markers “against the grain,” interrogating the biases and assessing historical accuracy.

Jessanya Holness, Licia Brown, and Morgan Crosswhite enjoy a candid conversation with Miss Muscogee Chenoa Barnett.

Jessanya Holness, Licia Brown, and Morgan Crosswhite enjoy a candid conversation with Miss Muscogee Chenoa Barnett.

In the Mvskoke creation story, the people emerged from a blinding fog, found another, and became a nation at Ocmulgee. Now, rising generations of learners made new connections with one another in the heart of this ancestral space.  In one notable conversation atop the site’s largest mound, Emory students met Miss Muscogee Nation Chenoa Barnett who shared her experience as Miss Muscogee Nation and her goal to become a Mvskoke educator. As a student at the College of Muscogee Nation, she shared her college experiences, aspirations for the future, and life stories with her peers from Emory University.

Royce Mann and Jaanaki Radhakrishnan admire prints by renowned Mvskoke artist Johnnie Diacon, whom they met the at the Indigenous Celebration.

Royce Mann and Jaanaki Radhakrishnan admire prints by renowned Mvskoke artist Johnnie Diacon, whom they met the at the Indigenous Celebration.

The cultural programming centered on storytelling, music, stickball, education stations, food, and tours of the mounds. One food station sold frybread which students enjoyed. Neeraj Painitkar (C27) said they “loved coming to this festival and seeing Indigenous cultures so vibrant and alive. It’s just really inspiring.”

Students, faculty, and visitors engaged with each event presented at their own pace, learning through observations of the presenters and building connections with the individuals at the education tables. Carter Douglas-Brown (C27’) observed that “it was really cool to be here and to see all the things in person that we are learning about in class.”

Ocmulgee Mounds remains a space that gives life to Indigenous creativity. Dr. William Harjo (Mvskoke) shared a piece of music he worked on called Dragonfly Song which attracted dragonflies. Throughout the day, dragonflies gathered around passerbyers, strengthening the connection between the Mvskoke continuous knowledge and the ecological knowledge of the mounds. Ted Wilson (C25’) reflected, “it was really cool that we were able to come and

Students from Anthropology-190 enjoy lunch and stories from Dr. William Harjo.

Students from Anthropology-190 enjoy lunch and stories from Dr. William Harjo.

experience this today with the Muscogee Nation. I’m really grateful that they came all this way to share their stories and traditions with us and it was a fun day to be here and be able to come here.”

Dr. Harjo also shared the story of the strawberry. First man and woman got into an argument resulting in the first woman leaving their home. For several days the first man waited for her return, but she never came back. After some time he went out to look for the first woman, passing by scattered white flowers as he went. Soon he had found her and they both were relieved to see each other. As they left together, strawberries bloomed on the flowers they passed. Strawberry has been a symbol of strengthening romance ever since. 

Emory students watch NVNVHI Warriors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee perform the Warrior’s Dance.

Emory students watch NVNVHI Warriors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee perform the Warrior’s Dance.

NVNVHI Warriors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians shared their efforts to pass on their way of life to the next generations through the ever-present teachings of the elders. Lessons are passed down wherever the elders and youth are together and memories or instructions are rekindled. The NVNVHI Warriors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee performed the Warrior’s Dance, one of the oldest ceremonial dances passed down across generations.


Emory Art and Social Justice Fellow Heather “Bird” Harris led a group of students onto the nature trail for a Radical Noticing Walk. This is a part of her wider work with the Arts and Social Justice Program and her “Land as Living Memory” project with students in History-285: Introduction to Native American History. 

Emory students continued their work of relationship building and place-based inquiry back on campus. Robin Barker, Lead Interpretive Ranger for Ocmulgee Mounds, made a virtual class visit to Anthropology 190 on September 27. Students shared their experiences and key teachings from their participation in the Indigenous Celebration. Barker updated students on the ongoing work of consultation with Tribal nations as part of the park’s effort to repair relationships, revise interpretive wayside markers, and bring existing exhibits into compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Students were welcomed to share their deeply researched critical analysis of interpretive wayside markers, actively participating in a generative dialogue about place-based storytelling and decolonial stewardship of National Parks. Ranger Barker invited students to continue the conversation in person at their next visit to Ocmulgee Mounds or consider continuing this work through future internships or volunteer opportunities on-site. 

This special experiential learning opportunity was made possible with support and co-sponsorship from the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, the Department of Anthropology, the Music Department’s Friends of Music Student Research fund, Emory College of Arts and Sciences pedagogy mini-grants, and the Department of History. 

Emory students, faculty, and family at the end of an action-packed day of experiential learning at Ocmulgee Mounds.

Emory students, faculty, and family at the end of an action-packed day of experiential learning at Ocmulgee Mounds.

NAISI Welcomes Dr. Laura Harjo as a Distinguished Fellow in Indigenous Knowledge

NAISI Welcomes Dr. Laura Harjo (Mvskoke) to Emory University as a Distinguished Fellow in Indigenous Knowledge for the 2023-24 academic year.

Laura Harjo is a Muscogee (Creek) scholar, award-winning author, Indigenous planner, and teacher. She is an associate professor and the previous interim chair in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Native American and Indigenous Studies at Emory University. Her scholarly inquiry focuses on “community.” Harjo’s research and teaching centers on three areas: (1) spatial storytelling, (2) anti-violence-informed Indigenous architecture and community planning, and (3) community-based knowledge production. These three areas of inquiry support a larger project of Indigenous futurity. Harjo’s book Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity (University of Arizona Press, 2019) employs Muscogee epistemologies and Indigenous feminisms to offer a community-based practice of futurity. Her book won the 2020 Beatrice Medicine Award for Best Published Monograph and the 2021 On the Brinck Book Award + Lecture.  

In 2022, she organized with colleagues at the University of Oklahoma Gibbs College of Architecture to create Muscogee (Creek) Tribal Town Futurity: Spatial Storytelling with Emergent Technologies. The exhibition employs Mvskoke futurity tools and technology to understand and represent spatial, sonic, and relational elements of original tribal towns and Mvskoke Futurity. Visitors could see the spatial arrangement of two tribal towns: a Mississippian and a Pre-Removal settlement. Past and present geographies are light projected onto the surface of the models. This work seeks to surface past and future emergence geographies—concrete, ephemeral, metaphysical, and virtual—of Muscogee Tribal Towns found in pre-removal Alabama and post-removal Oklahoma. 

Laura Harjo will co-facilitate the new Native American and Indigenous Studies Academic Learning Community seminar as it develops a new curriculum and programming for a new minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies, with special attention to respectful engagement with Mvskoke knowledge-holders. She will be dividing her time between Atlanta and Oklahoma throughout the academic year, participating in scholarly programming, campus-wide events, and visiting undergraduate classes.

Continue to check the NAISI program calendar for updates about campus events featuring Dr. Harjo throughout the 2023-24 academic year.  

NAISI Welcomes Dr. Emil’ Keme to the Emory

Dr. Emil’ Keme (K’iche’ Maya) joins Emory’s faculty as an Indigenous K’iche’ Maya scholar and professor of English and Indigenous Studies. 

Emil’ is currently working on a manuscript that examines Indigenous struggles for self-determination across the Americas. His work aims to highlight the potentialities of building trans-hemispheric Indigenous alliances by critically exploring the field of Indigenous studies, settler colonial borders, Indigenous forced migration, Indigenous approaches to environmental justice, and the rights of Indigenous women and LGBTQ2s+ peoples.


 Besides his teaching, research, and service to his department and university, he is co-founder and member of the collective: Community of Maya Studies, Ix’balamquej’ Junajpu Wunaq’, and volunteers for the International Mayan League. In mid-August of this year, with his collective, and the Indigenous Maya Women’s Movement, Tz’ununija’, he co-organized the II International Conference: Indigenous Peoples Against Racism, and moderated the panel “Migration, Racism, and Violence Against Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Peoples”. He also volunteers for the International Mayan League, a human rights organization led by Maya women and youth, that works for the rights of Indigenous migrants in the United States. 

Taking the lead from members of the Muscogee Nation, Emil’ hopes to contribute to preserving and passing their knowledge and being to current and future generations of students at Emory through the work of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative and the Indigenous Language Path. In the spring 2024, he will teach two undergraduate courses that will center Native voices and experiences, particularly Muscogee, that among others will include: Laura Harjo, Craig Womack, Joy Harjo, and Eddie Chuculate. “Muscogee literature will allow us to open a creative door to Muscogee experiences and knowledges and learn from some of the original peoples of what is now Atlanta”, Keme indicates. 

 As a first-generation college graduate, and faculty member, Keme also knows what it means to navigate college, and the new challenges this brings to one’s life. He believes that his experience in and out of academia, his listening skills, and outgoing personality can offer essential support to students interested in obtaining guidance, coaching, and advice while navigating and completing their degrees in the humanities at Emory. 

For a sample of Dr. Keme’s work, see the short piece: Abiayala and Indigenous Literation, available in English and Spanish.

Celebration of Native American and Indigenous Graduates of 2023

Congratulations to NAIS’s new graduates Iliyah Bruffett and Sierra Talavera-Brown!

Watch the recording of the 2023 Celebration of Native American and Indigenous Gradates here and view the photo gallery of the event here.


Dr. Leonard Lectures On Indigenous Language Reclamation

On April 10 2023, Dr. Wesley Leonard, citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, delivered a lecture about Indigenous reclamation of language. He began with an introduction of himself in myaamia, the Miami lan guage. He then narrated the Miami history of removal, his work to reclaim the Miami language, and explained how Native languages interact with the field of linguistics.

Dr. Leonard emphasized the difference between revitalization and reclamation of Indigenous languages because these languages are still being spoken. Revitalization invokes bringing life back into a language, but Dr. Leonard argues that these languages were never dead. It was just sleeping until users woke it up.

His central theme was the ”Seven R’s” respecting the land, the language, and the people who use the language; relevance of language education for learners and communities; reflexivity which examines one’s cause for action and prospective; incorporating Native understanding of reciprocity; responsibility of learning the language’s history; rights of the Indigenous users of the language to create their own curriculum; and relationality/relational accountability which is a holistic view of our relationship with our knowledge acquirement and accountability to the users of the language.

Dr. Leonard followed by looking at how the field of academic linguistics’ influences understandings of Native languages. The current study of linguistics breaks down language into subcategories and units. This diminishes the relational understanding integral to Native cultures. Dr. Leonard emphasized that “language is the blanket that holds all of our culture.” He has worked to change the narrative of myaamia from “mining” an “extinct” language created to erase Native history to centering myaamia and other Native languages being actively used in the present.

He concluded his lecture with reaffirming the purpose of Indigenous language reclamation. Reclamation centers on the Native community’s understanding of language, dismantling colonial discourse surrounding languages, promote engagement with communities at various levels of use, and foster allyships grounded in the Seven R’s.

Dr. Frye’s Reflections As The Former Tribal Surgeon General Of The Muscogee Creek Nation

On April 4th, Dr. Lance Frye, the former Surgeon General of the Muscogee Creek Nation, spoke at the Rollins School of Public Health’s third annual National Public Health Week.

Dr. Frye has an expansive background working in residency, private practice, the military, the state of Oklahoma and California, and Tribal governments. He knew his passion in life was to help others and make a difference, especially in the field of women’s health. He shared personal stories on how he met his wife in the army and how his son found himself with six cats. During his time practicing Military Air Space Medicine, he learned how to practice herd health. Dr. Frye traveled to Nicaragua, Uganda, and Malawi. He praised the work of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe for resisting the army and protecting the young girls of Uganda.

 Dr. Frye, who served as the Commissioner of Health for Oklahoma, highlighted some important events that marked the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 6th, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Oklahoma. This was followed by the cancellation of the Oklahoma City Thunder Game on March 11th, the inability of the Princess Cruise to dock on March 16th, and the initiation of lockdowns on March 24th. At the onset of the pandemic, Oklahoma, like the rest of the country, was unprepared to handle the pandemic and lacked the necessary supplies. The situation looked grim, with an expected death count of 13,000. It was an all-hands-on deck operation. He had to rapidly improve infrastructure, create proper response guidelines, clean up the inner records keeping of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, and fight for personal protective equipment along with many other struggles to protect Oklahoma against the pandemic.

Dr. Frye recounted how the governor of Oklahoma called the National Guard and established a multi-agency command to consolidate resources. He was a part of the Governor’s Solution Task Force as the Commissioner of Health. His task was to get supplies and reach out to the hardest hit facilities: hospitals and senior living facilities. The Oklahoma State University Project Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (ECHO) was adopted to connect and relay health information, especially to rural communities. More than 150 ECHO sessions and over 40,000 parties participated in this project. Their main goal for recovery was vaccine promotion and distribution. The rollouts occurred promptly with nurses being vaccinated in December 2020, himself and the governor in March of 2021 and actress Kristin Chenoweth in April of that same year.

The United States was very politically divided over the vaccines and Oklahoma was no different. There were many strong, consistent voices against vaccines and masks who were very influential during policy decisions. The economic shutdown was also a hard decision to enact even though it was the best course of action. Many Tribal governments formed vaccine lines and mobilized large efforts such as talking to casino heads to transferred skills to rolling out the vaccine. These efforts were open to everyone which helped make vaccines accessible. Dr. Frye facilitated many conversations and collaborations with hospitals, suppliers, and other organizations helping the effort.

Dr. Frye and the leadership of Oklahoma felt that they made the correct yet difficult decisions. In 2022, Dr. Frye was appointed as the first Surgeon General of the Muscogee Creek Nation. He entered this role because he felt that he could make a positive change within the Muscogee Nation’s health system. He reflected on how hard it was to operate the public health department. There are 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma because of ongoing historical traumas and complex Tribal-state boundaries. All these need to be addressed within the public health system.

Some of the public health issues Dr. Frye worked to solve is the diet crisis within Tribal nations. The Federal Indian Removal Act of 1831 and the legacies of “Trail of Tears” disrupted traditional food ways and the US rations did not provide the same nutritional value as Native foods from the homeland. Processed food products like flour, lard, and sugar increased the rates of poor health outcomes such as diabetes by three time within the Muscogee Creek Nation. While working through approaches, Dr. Frye and his team looked through historical data, surveyed the opinion of leaders, established a data collection to recoding and share patient information, and worked to ensure that the health services Dr. Frye sought to build met them need of the patients seeking care. One program Dr. Frye enacted to address some of the health concerns of the Muscogee Creek Nation was the Muscogee Creek Nation Diabetes Program. The program included the motto “Stay Active to Stay Healthy”; they boosted hospitals, schools, and cultural center’s resources to support the program. The internal medicine departments of hospitals also hired more specialized healthcare professionals to meet the demands of the program.

A hurdle Dr. Frye worked to overcome was the historical underfunding of Tribal Health by developing a self-governed health care system under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA). The 2020 Supreme Court case McGirt vs Oklahoma upheld Muscogee Creek Nation’s sovereignty and self-governance.  State and tribal governments had to adjust for preexisting systems because Muscogee Nation had to build up their own public health system as opposed to sharing departments with Oklahoma.  New Tribal policies need to be codified to establish authority, financial allocations, and set public health codes. To create a robust Health Department, Dr. Frye has worked build an inter-tribal and tribal-state collaboration to set up and share essential public health services with Tribal nations who have the best resources to fulfill them.

There are still challenges Dr. Frye faced such as silos of communication, lack of accessible patient data, funding, coordination, collaboration, and complex politics. Dr. Frye ended his talk with the reminder that everyone in public health—by extension healthcare, works together for a common goal. Some of the lessons Dr. Frye has taken from his experience as the first Surgeon General of the Muscogee Creek Nation was the importance of modernized and proactive data to implement preventive measures instead of reactivity. He also focused on the importance of collaboration, competence of providers with Indigenous cultures, and striving for long-term benefits.

Emory Report: “New Center for Native and Indigenous Studies Set to Launch in Fall 2023”

On April 26, The Emory News Center announced that the Emory College of Arts and Sciences is set to launch a new Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies this fall to advance and inspire research, scholarship, teaching and learning rooted in and related to Indigenous studies. To read more click here.

New Center for Native and Indigenous Studies set to launch in fall 2023

Emory Wheel Highlights Mellon Foundation Grant for Emory’s Indigenous Studies in Partnership with the College of the Muscogee Nation

On February 15, the Emory Wheel published that the Mellon Foundation awarded $2.4 million dollars towards developing an Indigenous Studies at Emory University in collaboration with the College of Muscogee Nation. Read about it here.

Emory Wheel “Emory plans to develop Indigenous studies program in partnership with the College of the Muscogee Nation”

Mellon Foundation awards Emory $2.4 million to advance Indigenous studies and knowledge with the Muscogee Nation

On February 14, the Emory News Center published that “The Mellon Foundation has awarded Emory University and the College of the Muscogee Nation (CMN) in Oklahoma a $2.4 million grant that will help develop collaborative and independent programs advancing Native and Indigenous Studies and the preservation of the Mvskoke language in a unique partnership between the two schools.” Read more here.