OKMULGEE, Okla. – Virginia Thomas (Mvskoke) had quite the busy year in 2023. Not only was she one of five elders selected as a living legend during Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Festival in June, she was also selected as one of the American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP) Native American Elders honored in 2023. On top of recent accolades, Thomas continues to serve her community as chair of the Okmulgee Indian Community.
Thomas was honored by AARP at a ceremony held at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City Nov. 1, 2023. The ceremony has been held every year since 2009, marking its 14th year in 2023.
Thomas’ history of service with MCN dates back to the 1970s in the education department under then Principal Chief Claude Cox. Throughout her career in education Thomas taught in Oklahoma and California. She also ran a nonprofit Johnson O’Malley program (JOM) in Alaska that served approximately 5,000 students. Thomas started her decades-long career at just 20 years old.
In the 1990s Thomas would return to Oklahoma to serve her fellow MCN citizens. Thomas was elected to the OIC board as treasurer in 2000. In 2019 she was elected as the OIC chair, a position she still holds to this day. Thomas not only works closely with her fellow Okmulgee community members, she also continues to build relationships with other communities like Tulsa and Muskogee.
When Thomas received the call that she would be honored as an AARP Native American Elder, she did not initially believe the news. She thought that if a representative from AARP was calling her, it was more likely they were trying to sign her up for a membership with the organization.
“I thought, ‘Why did I answer this? They’re going to ask me for money!” Thomas said. “I did not know that I was nominated, but it surprised me.”
Thomas received the honor based on her work in education, as well as her service to her tribe. She is one of the founding members of the National JOM association. According to Thomas, the JOM program she established within MCN was considered a model to other programs across the United States.
Muscogee (Creek) Challenge Bowl
One of Thomas’ biggest and long-lasting legacies from her time running the MCN JOM program is the challenge bowl. Hosted annually early in the year, the bowl sees school teams compete with one another to answer questions pertaining to Mvskoke language, history and culture. Although the bowl is held in high regard now, it initially faced obstacles when it was first organized. MCN National Council members at the time were not supportive of it. However, it was when Thomas attended a challenge bowl in Cherokee Nation that she had a realization a similar event was a necessity for her tribe.
“When I walked in the door all these kids would come running up to me and try to talk to me in Cherokee. Greeting me, shaking my hand, welcoming me in,” Thomas said. “I was in one of our own schools the week before, and our own Creek kids didn’t know one word in Creek, they couldn’t greet me. They didn’t know their clan, they didn’t know who their chief was, they didn’t know anything. They just knew they were Creek.”
The challenge bowl has seen great changes over the years. It initially only had a budget of $3,000. However, after careful consideration from the National Council that would increase to $5,000. According to Thomas, the challenge bowl is now a line item in the MCN’s fiscal budget. The competition was initially conducted from binders, now it is conducted by using computers.
“If I’ve done anything right for my tribe it was the challenge bowl,” – Mvskoke Living Legend Virginia Thomas
Now in 2024, the Challenge Bowl continues to see generations of Mvskoke children compete with their knowledge on their tribe’s culture.
According to Thomas, a fruit that has come from the challenge bowl is the current language program. After seeing a renewed interest in the Mvskoke culture, many wanted the opportunity to learn the Mvskoke language as well. Thomas then assembled a team of prominent tribal leaders for the language advisory committee including Wilbur Chebon Gouge, Amos McNac and James King.
Thomas’ passion for cultural knowledge and practice came from the absence of it being used when she first arrived in Oklahoma in the 1970s. According to Thomas, when she would speak Mvskoke words no one understood what she was saying. Additionally, while growing up her parents were afraid to speak Mvskoke in public due to cultural stigmas.
When combating these modern stigmas that have repressed the practice of learning about culture and language, Thomas’ advice is to be proactive in passing it down.
“When those people that have it around you (language), you take it for granted,” Thomas said. “We forget to teach. You think it’s going to be here always, and we’ve lost generations of not teaching the language or our culture and the kids suffered.”
Thomas added that if the knowledge of the tribe’s ancestors are not passed down, all they did for survival was for nothing. That is the most important lesson she has learned and hopes to pass down for future generations.
Nominations for the 2024 AARP Oklahoma Native American Elder Honors will open this month.