The Scottish missionaries boarded their ship and crowded its deck, smiling and waving to their loved ones, who stood on the dock below. America, with its vast unexplored lands, was their destination. As their way of bidding farewell, the missionaries began singing their favorite hymns in their native Scottish Gaelic. Their friends and family on the dock responded in song, even as the ship departed. They sang until neither party could hear the other, until the ship and the dock faded from sight.
The Scottish missionaries embarking to America planned to change the lives of the Indians they’d meet, but they had no idea their traveling songs would plant the seed from which American music would grow.
Hear Sterlin Harjo discuss the songs of his youth, his grandfather, and returning home:
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For most Oklahoma kids, Sunday school is just as important as any other kind of school. For Sterlin Harjo, it was no different. He divided his Sundays between the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole churches near his home in Holdenville, depending on which grandmother was driving that morning.
Some of the Indian churches Harjo attended incorporated the traditions of the Muscogee (Creek) ceremonial grounds into their Baptist or Methodist religion. In nearly all of them, song was (and is) the heart of the service.
The Creek hymns stuck with Harjo, especially at the Baptist churches. Song leaders would stand before the congregation and begin singing, usually a slow, mournful hymn, in Creek and a cappella. A few beats later, the congregation would join in. Some held hymnals (most knew the songs by heart), but the books contained only the Creek lyrics to the songs, no music. The songs were never taught, rather learned. The Muscogee people picked them up as a matter of course.
The Creek hymns have been part of Harjo’s life for so long he can’t even remember when he first heard one. They were just always there. And for most Muscogee people, the same is true. They may not know the details of where those hymns came from—common belief is they’re handed down from God himself—but they know what’s important: the people, the milestones, and the stories the songs represent.
Hugh Foley has studied the history of the Creek hymns. Foley is a music historian and a professor of fine arts at Rogers State University in Claremore. A white man, he began attending Hutche Chuppa Indian Baptist Church 17 years ago. He married a Muscogee woman, and, before they divorced, they had a son. To bring his son closer to the Creek people and their language, Foley found a church that had been founded by one of his son’s ancestors, and they began attending.
Foley was quiet at first, listening and observing, careful to tread lightly around those who might consider him an uninvited and unwanted guest. But his fascination grew. He began asking questions.
Foley asked if he could bring a tape recorder into one of the services. He wanted to record the words and play it back for them, to see if they could tell him about specific parts. What he got on tape, though, was much more than a word. The services at Hutche Chuppa were filled with singing, and when he played the tapes back, Foley heard something familiar in those hymns. It wasn’t just that he had heard them dozens of times in the years he’d been attending the church; they sounded like the black spirituals sung by slaves in the South.
Listen to Hugh Foley talk about becoming the first white member of Hutche Chuppa Indian Baptist Church:
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Missionaries from the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge were the first to bring the gospel to the Creeks and Seminoles in Alabama and Georgia in the early 1800s. When the Scots landed in America, they set up Christian churches on tribal ground to steer Natives away from their traditional ceremonial worship and, through intermarriage and evangelism, toward the Christian faith. They also brought African slaves, both to the Muscogee Nation and to church. And, with them, the slaves brought their African melodies, immediately influencing the songs sung inside the church—songs that were translated to Muscogee, in an effort to proselytize to the Indians.
“From the very beginning of the first decade of the 1800s, you have Scottish-inspired missionaries with their songs, which have taken on African melodies, then put into the Creek language,” Foley explained.
For that reason, Foley contends that the Muscogee (Creek) hymns are the first American music. Foley wrote a chapter on the Muscogee (Creek) hymns in his book Oklahoma Music Guide, which chronicles the history of music in the state. In that chapter, he wrote that the Muscogee hymn tradition is “a model for cultural diffusion influence, adaptation, and re-appropriation, evolving into what very well could be the first American music that embraces the three major cultures of the nascent United States: the Anglo-Scot European, the African, and the American Indian… No other American music has those three elements as early as Muscogee (Creek) hymns, which may make the hymns the first truly American music.”
Though other Indian tribes adopted Christianity and its customs, including hymns, none of them exhibit the equal influence of those three cultures like the Creek’s hymns do.
The Scottish missionaries in Alabama were beginning to make headway in their conversion of the Muscogee people when the upheaval began. While America and Great Britain fought the War of 1812, the Creek Civil War broke out over whether or not to expel white people from their tribal lands and return to their traditional, ceremonial ways of life. The war was fought first between members of the same tribe, who were later joined by U.S. forces. Andrew Jackson led an Army of Choctaw and Cherokee warriors, along with enlisted soldiers and members of the Tennessee militia, on an attack of the Upper Creek people that lasted a year and killed several hundred.
The Creek War ended with the battle at Horseshoe Bend and with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Andrew Jackson seized all of the Native land involved in the battle, even from the tribes that had been his allies. The Muscogee were confined to a strip of land in what is now Alabama until 1830, when Jackson, now president, signed the Indian Removal Act and America began the process of forcibly removing Indians from their lands.
That process took upwards of 10 years and resulted in the loss of thousands of Indian lives. But through it, through the hardship and bloodshed, through rape and death, the songs remained. It’s widely believed Indians sang hymns as they were being led down the Trail of Tears. In his Oklahoma Music Guide, Foley writes:
One can relate a double meaning to many hymns that refer to a hard journey, or otherwise represent the removal of Creeks to Indian Territory, while at the same time representing the Christian spiritual journey from this world to heaven. “Cesvs em Vhakvn Pohis” (“Christian Triumph”) refers to land that has been appointed for the singer, and after wickedness has been overcome, the singer will go and see that land. …
Of a particularly solemn note, Muscogee people have relayed to the author that “Heleluyvn” (“Hallelujah”) was often sung when a Creek person could go no further on the removal and perished. Not given time to bury the body, the people could only cover the fallen relative in leaves or a blanket, stand in a circle and sing “Heleluyvn,” and then press on. Therefore, the hymns also act as permanent records of that tragic time, although fewer and fewer people seem to know the older songs, their sources, or their purpose today, which is why community singings have started to be organized to pass on that information.
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Once the Indians made it to Indian Territory, the Scottish missionaries resumed their efforts to Christianize them, establishing churches and continuing the practice of intermarriage. Some Creeks established their own churches. The hymns survived as well and were further developed within the Indian churches. From Foley’s Oklahoma Music Guide:
After removal, since slaves could often speak both Muscogee and English, many early interpreters and preachers in Indian Territory were African-Creeks, often preaching to mixed audiences. When all missionaries were ejected from the Creek Nation in 1836 for upsetting the balance of participation in the traditional religion, African-Creeks became the de facto ministers until the missionaries were allowed to resume their work in the Nation in the mid- to late-1840s. …
After the Civil War, as slaves of African descent began to separate from their tribal owners and form their own churches, the Muscogee Christians maintained some of the older styles of singing African-American hymns and spirituals, as well as some songs directly from the earlier Scottish missionaries, and some common Southern Baptist hymns, often converted into the language. As a result, as of 2011, rural Muscogee Baptist and Methodist churches feature hymns in Muscogee and English, some of which are descended form the previously mentioned Scottish sources, but also spirituals reflective of 19th century African-American slaves. Interestingly, these hymns are not heard in Oklahoma’s African-American rural churches. Therefore, the rural Muscogee Baptists and Methodists are the stewards of the centuries-old African hymn styles in the United States.
Some of those hymns have influenced popular music as well. “Espoketis Omes Kerreskos” is the Muscogee version of the African spiritual “This May Be the Last Time, We Don’t Know.” The Staples Singers adopted the hymn’s melody in their 1955 hit “This May Be the Last Time,” and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones borrowed the Staples Singers’ version for their 1965 chart-topper, “The Last Time.”
The song was borrowed once again by Sterlin Harjo as the title and centerpiece of his new film, a feature-length documentary produced by Matt Leach and This Land Films about the Muscogee (Creek) hymns.
Harjo met Foley at Rogers State University, where Foley was showing his Harjo’s 2009 film, Barking Water. Foley pointed out Harjo’s use of the Creek hymns in both that film and his previous feature, Four Sheets to the Wind, and the two got on the subject of the hymns’ history. “Learning their history got me thinking of making a film about the songs,” Harjo said. “When you talk to the Creek people, they talk about the songs in story.” It was important to Harjo to relay not just thehistory of the Creek hymns, but their role in the Muscogee peoples’ lives, so the film is a series of vignettes. The characters, people who attend Indian churches in rural Oklahoma, tell their own stories, and talk about how their songs have helped shape those stories.
“It’s a different kind of documentary,” Harjo admitted. “I can’t tell you if the film industry is going to like it very much. I’m not trying to show an outside audience, ‘Hey, look at these Indians singing these songs.’ I want the Creek and Seminole people to realize how special they are. I wanted to really honor the way we talk about the hymns, which is that we tell stories about them. We remember people in connection to the songs. They remind us of people who died, stories we heard, stories that have been passed down, and I wanted to make a film that reflected that.
“The film is going to be so dear to the people here and to the people who know these songs. That’s the most important thing to me.”
A few weeks after Sterlin, Leach, and their team finished filming the documentary and were preparing it for its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Harjo went back to the First Indian Baptist Church, the one he’d attended regularly while growing up in Holdenville. The church doesn’t sing as many Creek hymns as it did when Harjo was young, but on that day, the song leader, seeing Harjo in attendance, asked him lead the people in song.
He told Harjo he thought his film could inspire the congregation to re-learn the songs of their past. It was the first time Harjo had led a song in church. He began the first few words of his favorite hymn, “Momis Komvke Hvlwe Tvlofvn” (“patiently endure to that heavenly city”), and soon other voices began to melt with his.