Jay Fife reckons with tribal history while building community
When Yale College senior Jay Fife graduates this month, some 30 family members and friends will be on campus for the celebration, most from the Muscogee Reservation in Oklahoma where he grew up. He is the first in his family to graduate from an Ivy League institution, and, also becomes the first Ivy-educated 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, reclamation, and community empowerment.
The “survival” part reflects how Fife — who grew up in a low-income family on a rural farm and had only 30 students in his high school class — achieved academic success at a world-class university. His ancestors were forcibly removed from their homelands during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s and his grandmother and mother were forced by the U.S. government to attend an American Indian boarding school meant to “civilize” Native children.
Campus life might have led Fife away from the Native ceremonial dances and other traditions he grew up with, but he instead remained dedicated to his culture. He immersed himself in a study of the endangered Mvskoke language that he began in high school and went a few steps more: Supported by Mellon Mays and Edward A. Bouchet Undergraduate Fellowships, he became the first person ever to write a history of that language — which today is spoken fluently by only about 200 tribal members — for his senior thesis.
His thesis explores the oral traditions of the language and the ways in which it and Mvskoke cultural identity were impacted by the Christian religion.
During his four years as a member of the house staff for the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) and as an aide to Davenport College Head of College John Witt, Fife helped build community among both Native and non-Native students. Sometimes he bridged both communities, such as when he prompted Witt to host a virtual discussion of a 2020 Supreme Court case that impacted Muscogee sovereignty. Fife also was a member of Native drum group Red Territory.
The Davenport College senior decided to apply to Yale after taking part in College Horizons, a pre-college program for Native American students. Dinée Dorame ’15, who then was responsible for Native outreach and recruitment in Yale’s admissions office, was a leader in the program, and told Fife she saw great potential in him.
Having someone tell him that she believed in him, Fife said, helped him believe in himself.
“When I came to Yale, I didn’t understand what it meant to be at an academically rigorous institution,” said Fife. “But I learned to adapt. I learned to survive. And I learned to how to move in a way that allowed me to reclaim agency, but also to empower others as I came to understand my own survival.”
Fife, who majored in American studies, credits his thesis adviser, religious studies scholar Kathryn Lofton, for supporting him and validating his feelings during some painful parts of researching and writing his thesis — the reckoning with 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 Mvskoke language at the College of the Muscogee Nation.
“I see it as a responsibility to myself and my community to reinterpret a history that is often overlooked,” Fife said. “But it is an even greater responsibility to my ancestors.”