Jay Fife Considers Tribal History While Building Community

When Yale College senior Jay Fife graduates this month, about 30 family and friends will be on campus for the celebration, most from the Muscogee reservation in Oklahoma, where he grown up. He is the first in his family to graduate from an Ivy League institution and also becomes the first graduate of Preston High School in Beggs, Oklahoma.

But for Fife, the event carries even greater symbolism: his graduation, he said, is a celebration of survival, recovery and community empowerment.

The ‘survival’ part reflects how Fife – who grew up in a low-income family on a rural farm and had just 30 students in her high school class – managed her studies at a world-class university. His ancestors were forcibly removed from their homeland during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s and his grandmother and mother were forced by the US government to attend a Native American boarding school intended to “civilize” Native children. .

Life on campus may have distanced Fife from the Native ceremonial dances and other traditions he grew up with, but instead he remained committed to his culture. He immersed himself in a study of the endangered Mvskoke language that he began in high school and took a few more steps: supported by Mellon Mays and Edward A. Bouchet undergraduate scholarships, he became the first person to write a history of this language – which today is spoken fluently by only about 200 tribal members – for his senior thesis.

Her thesis explores the oral traditions of the language and how it and Mvskoke cultural identity have been influenced by the Christian religion.

During his four years as a member of the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) house staff and as an assistant to Davenport College Head of College John Witt, Fife helped build community among native and non-native students. indigenous. At times, he has bridged the two communities, such as when he prompted Witt to host a virtual discussion about a 2020 Supreme Court case that impacted Muscogee sovereignty. Fife was also a member of the Aboriginal drumming group Red Territory.

The Davenport College senior decided to apply to Yale after attending College Horizons, a pre-college program for Native American students. Dinée Dorame ’15, who was then head of outreach and native recruitment at Yale’s admissions office, was a leader in the program and told Fife she saw great potential in him.

Having someone tell him she believed in him, Fife said, helped him believe in himself.

Jay Fife is studying

When I came to Yale, I didn’t understand what it meant to be at an academically rigorous institution,” Fife said. “But I learned to adapt. I learned to survive. And I learned to move in a way that allowed me to reclaim my agency, but also empower others as I understood my own survival.

Fife, who majored in American Studies, credits his thesis advisor, religious studies scholar Kathryn Lofton, for supporting him and validating his feelings during some painful parts of the research and writing. of his thesis – the consideration of a history of intergenerational Indigenous trauma, including his own. .

Fife will return to Oklahoma after graduation, where in the fall he will become an adjunct professor of the Mvskoke language at the College of the Muscogee Nation.

I consider it a responsibility for me and my community to reinterpret a story that is often overlooked,” Fife said. “But it’s an even greater responsibility to my ancestors.”

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