Photo: Brian Tietz
Floridian of the Year 2019
A Florida Native American teacher is helping to preserve the Creek language
Jade Osceola is fighting to keep her tribe’s native language from becoming obsolete.
During the 1990s, Jade Osceola attended Seminole Elementary School in Okeechobee, nearly 30 miles northeast of the Seminole Brighton Reservation where she lived. School was a struggle, and prejudice and stereotyping took an emotional toll.
“All the native kids always sat in the back,” she recalls, and stares kept them from wearing their traditional beads and clothing. “If you were a native kid, (people assumed) you came from a drug-addicted and alcoholic home, you have lice in your hair … you weren’t going to do well on tests.”
Her favorite days were Fridays. That’s when she and other Native American students would remain behind on the reservation to learn Creek, her tribe’s native tongue, and about other Seminole traditions. Osceola enjoyed Friday “pull-out school” so much that by high school she was volunteering as a “junior teacher” in the program. Not long after, she realized teaching was her calling
Today, Osceola, 33, teaches Creek to eighth-graders at the reservation’s Pemayetv Emahakv (pronounced Pemma- yetta Emma-ha-ga) Charter School, or “Our Way” school. Earlier this year, she was named Glades County Teacher of the Year.
The school, which opened in 2007, is also earning high marks. It’s the highest performing of all three public schools in Glades County, earning a B grade for its elementary grades and an A rating for its middle school.
Like all charters, Pemayetv Emahakv must adhere to the same academic standards as any other Florida public school, and students must take the same state-mandated tests. But there are some notable differences. The average class size is 12, and each classroom has a full-time aide. Students participate in sports and cultural activities — such as wood-carving and archery — that they wouldn’t encounter in a traditional school.
“I don’t think most schools butcher a hog at the end of the year,” Osceola says.
The most significant difference, she says, is the school’s emphasis on the tribe’s native language. Over the past several decades, the number of fluent Creek speakers on the reservation has dwindled to just a very few. Right now, the community’s youngest fluent Creek speaker is 55 — and Osceola worries that time is running out.
“As a community, we saw our numbers, and it terrified us because language is what makes you different from all other Native Americans across the country,” she says. “It’s not your food. It’s not your clothing. It’s not any of that, and you can’t do your ceremonies without language. That’s what makes us different. That’s what puts us on the map.”
All of the school’s 186 students study and practice the language for an hour every day — and a dozen kids participate in the school’s Creek immersion program, which Osceola now oversees. Academic instruction is provided solely in Creek, and kids attend year-round. Community elders come in and work with the children on a daily basis.
Students in the immersion program range from 6 months old to 7 years old. Osceola’s daughter, now 5, started in it when she was a year old. “She’s learning kindergarten solely in the language. So her first language is Creek,” she says.
This year, Osceola says, students in the immersion program spend about one to two hours a day reading and writing in English, and some are pushing for up to half a day of English instruction, but Osceola is “hoping that won’t happen until much later.” Between TV and YouTube, she believes kids get plenty of exposure to English at home.
Language lessons aside, Osceola tries to instill in her students a sense of pride and a strong identity, particularly as they head off to traditional high school. She doesn’t want them to go through the pain and hardships she did. She encourages them to sit in the front of the room, to know their lineage and be proud of their roots. “I just want them to know who they are, where they come from and know that they’re a strong native person.”
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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