HARKER HEIGHTS — As he approaches his 80th birthday next month, Killeen resident Kenneth Hendrix has become the star pupil in an ongoing series of classes about Native American language as he seeks to learn more about his family’s cultural heritage.
A 20-year military veteran who served in Vietnam from 1968-69 and retired as a lieutenant colonel, Hendrix traces his roots with the historic Muscogee (Creek) Nation to his paternal grandmother, who lived on property along Snake Creek in Oklahoma, where he fished and hunted as a boy.
After the Indian Removal Act was signed into law in May 1830, a systematic effort by the federal government began to remove Native Americans — Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, and Cherokee — from southeastern states and relocate them west of the Mississippi River. Much of the Muscogee population was forced to move to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma, which became the 46th state on Nov. 16, 1907). A small group remained in Alabama, while another moved into Florida and joined tribes there to form the Seminoles.
Hendrix, a former high school history teacher, never knew much about his family history as a boy traveling back and forth between San Antonio and his grandmother’s home, but over time he learned more and more about his Muscogee background.
“My wife has so many different activities (and) sometimes I just feel like I don’t have much to do,” he said with a smile last weekend, after attending a Muscogee language class taught by longtime Killeen resident, Eric Gaither, a graduate student with aspirations to become a historical researcher.
“The language, the culture … it seems like this cultural thing has kind of closed in on me recently. I don’t know if my grandmother spoke Muscogee or not. I never heard it — at least not that I knew at the time.
“I knew that my dad was part Creek Indian — we always referred to it as Creek — and I was teaching history and a couple of other subjects in high school in San Antonio. Sometimes when it seemed appropriate, historically or whatever, I would say, ‘And all you foreigners are welcomed in my land.’”
Muscogee (Creek) Nation is a self-governed Native American tribe located in Okmulgee, Okla. It is referred to as one of the Five Civilized Tribes — Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), Seminole — and is considered one of the largest tribes in the U.S. with 97,000 citizens.
The language class, which is open to the public and continues for the next two weeks from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday at the Harker Heights Public Library, is part of a service learning project Gaither is completing while enrolled with the College of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma.
He is working on his third master’s degree and has plans to apply to a doctoral program on his way to becoming a historical researcher.
“This is a very important part of that process, because it draws in something that typically is overlooked in the study of history,” Gaither said. “We sort of focus on French, German … but not many people understand that at the core of history are the indigenous languages.
“You can’t say you’re doing the history of an area when you have no homage paid to the first language spoken in that area. You cannot do the history of the South without delving into the Muskogee language. It takes precedence over all other languages.”
Since he joined the class, Hendrix, who said he considers himself one-eighth Muscogee, has become a prominent part of the discussion. During one recent morning, Gaither turned things over to the soon-to-be octogenarian, who told stories about visiting his Muscogee grandmother, fishing in the creek, hunting for squirrels, and other adventures, as Gaither operated an accompanying slideshow of family photos.
“I loved my grandmother’s biscuits for breakfast,” Hendrix said. “But best of all was going down to the creek to catch fish. Grandma took an iron skillet, grease, and quilts to the creek bank. I caught fish with my aunts, cousins, and grandmother. Then Grandma fried them on the bank.
“I was not allowed to go hunting with the men. After hunts, Dad brought squirrels to my Grandma, who would skin and fry them for dinner. When (I got) older, I could tag along without a gun. Finally, after Vietnam, I was allowed to join the men. I shot a squirrel about 100 yards away at the top of a tree. It felt good to impress my father with my skills.
“When my father, Jimmy, was young, Grandpa was making an alcoholic beverage in the barn. Dad got sick after drinking (some). Grandma was on the warpath. She had a hatchet like Carrie Nation and told Grandpa there would be no more white lightning for little Jimmy.”
Gaither said when Hendrix began attending the class a few weeks ago, it took things to a different level.
“His story is such a great story,” Gaither said. “Having Mr. Hendrix come in … his presence brought everything full circle.
“That’s the real story here. It’s not about me. I’m just the facilitator. It’s really about this man finding his way back to his language. His wife said one of the key things that she really wanted him to get out of all this, if nothing else, was just to be able to say, ‘I love you,’ (in Muscogee) to his grandchildren.”
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