August 6, 2007
Native Americans and jazz
on literature professor’s beat
By carol Clark
Craig Womack, a leading figure in Native American literary studies and a Muscogee Creek-Cherokee, recently joined the Emory faculty as associate professor of English. In the fall, he will teach two courses: “Native American Literatures of the Southeast“ and “Jazz Literature.”
Womack is the author of the novel “Drowning in Fire,” a coming-of-age story of a young boy who discovers he’s gay, set within the Muscogee Creek Nation in rural Oklahoma. His other books include “Red on Red,” a case for tribal specificity in the study of Native American culture and literature, and “American Indian Literary Nationalism,” co-authored with Robert Warrior and Jace Weaver.
Emory Report interviewed Womack this spring, when he gave a talk to the English department about Native American sovereignty in the South.
ER: What does it mean to be Muscogee Creek-Cherokee?
Womack: My parents were both mixed-blood native people of Creek and Cherokee ancestry. These tribes were originally from the Southeast. Creeks were primarily in Georgia and Alabama and Cherokee are from a broader range: North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia. In the 1830s, both of these tribes were removed to present-day Oklahoma.
ER: Where does Muscogee come in?
Womack: In the Creek language, the word that people use to describe themselves is Muscogee. The word “Creek” became popular in colonial times. Some people speculate it’s because Creek people always lived close to rivers and tributaries.
ER: In your talk you mentioned that some members of the Creek tribe in Alabama and Georgia owned African slaves. How did that come about?
Womack: Benjamin Hawkins was an Indian agent in Creek country [following the Revolutionary War]. He introduced the Creeks to new technology and helped Creek people develop farms, similar to other Southern farms of the time. Some people within the tribe became slaveholders in the early 1880s and were influenced by the larger Southern culture that surrounded them.
ER: What is the current controversy within the Creek tribe and the descendents of these former slaves, known as freedmen?
Womack: The controversy is not just among the Creeks. In fact, a recent Oklahoma Cherokee referendum that disenfranchised freedmen has gotten more media attention. The Creek tribal constitution was rewritten in 1979, and citizens on the freedmen rolls were disenfranchised. I am against the disenfranchisement of the freedmen, which makes no sense to me in relation to any reasonable commitment to history.
ER: You left the University of Oklahoma, which has a master’s program in Native American studies, and is located amid 39 federally recognized Indian tribes, to come to Emory. Do you think that Emory offers the same fertile ground for Native American studies?
Womack: I think there’s a growing group of people here who are interested in taking what’s already part of Emory’s history of Southern Studies and including these native perspectives. I hope to be a part of that. And I hope to do it in a way that’s not just purely theoretical, but connected to actual communities in the Southeast.
ER: What’s the one thing about Native Americans that you wish most people knew?
Womack: I think the tendency is to view Native American tribes as cultures, rather than governments. Yet all of them run modern-day governments.
ER: What will your “Jazz Literature” class cover?
Womack: I’m looking at any kind of literature for which jazz music has an obvious, or not so obvious, bearing on the narrative.
ER: Are you a musician?
Womack: I play jazz guitar. I sometimes play with a friend of mine, Phil Morgan, a pianist who is Choctaw. He wrote “The Fork-in-the-Road Indian Poetry Store” and we’ve been combining readings of our work with musical performances. We’ve had a lot of fun with that.