IU professor is expert on little-known Native American tribe

Out of the handful of books written about the Yuchi people, nearly every single one has Jason Baird Jackson‘s name on the cover.

That’s because Jackson — an associate professor of folklore in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures — is an expert on the Native American group that is considered part of the federally recognized Creek nation.

Jason Baird Jackson

Jason Baird Jackson

He began studying their culture more than two decades ago, first as a young graduate student, then moving to Oklahoma to work in a museum as well as live and study among the people.

“It was really immersion learning, which most grad students do when they’re working on their dissertation,” Jackson said. “But instead of spending 12 or 18 months among the Yuchi people, I was able to live with them for nearly a decade. It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to be the person who gets to really know a group of people, and translating that knowledge into something that has some permanence.”

Jackson’s new book, “Yuchi Folklore: Cultural Expression in a Southeastern Native American Community,” was published by University of Oklahoma Press this year. The book, which focuses on a range of customs distinctive to the Yuchi people, follows an edited volume published by University Nebraska Press last year: “Yuchi Indian Histories Before the Removal Era.”

First noted by Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the 16th century, the Yuchi later moved from eastern Tennessee to Georgia and linked up with Creek communities there — an alliance that had long-lasting repercussions for the tribe.

When the U.S. government forced most southeastern groups to move to Oklahoma in the early 19th century, the Yuchis were classified as Creeks. And they still are today, despite the existence of a separate language and their own distinct history, culture and religious traditions.

yuchi_folklore_bookMany tribal members would like to change that, and are working for the Yuchi to be federally recognized on their own. That’s where Jackson hopes his work documenting the tribe’s heritage will continue to have impact.

“The things that bind the Yuchi together as a people are their ceremonies — the dress, food, dance, music and stories that explore why they do what they do,” he said. “And many of the leaders today have taken up this mission of recognition. They’re saying, ‘If our grandparents worked so hard to maintain our culture and our unique identity, who are we to stop that work?’ I’ve been so lucky to be able to work with these people who have such wonderful stories to tell, and with such a rich culture that has made my life study very rewarding and interesting.”

Any royalties Jackson’s new book generates will be forwarded directly from the publisher to the Yuchi tribe for use in its cultural and historical preservation efforts.

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