Merry Monroe teaches her Chickasaw language class at Byng High School.
By Gene Lehmann, Chickasaw Nation
BYNG, OKLAHOMA – There definitely is something about Merry.
Rev. Howard and Mrs. Lorena Baker knew their daughter would be born at Christmastime. When she did arrive, on December 20, 1950, they christened her Merry Carol.
While unusual, the name fits her to a tee.
She sings, loves, cares and brings merriment to the lives of her Byng High School students and thousands of others. She is a member of Native Praise, a choir which sings hymns in Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Cherokee languages.
More importantly, she teaches the Chickasaw language so it will live on.
Her teaching mannerisms resemble a seasoned conductor coaxing beautiful music from an orchestra.
Four tribes could lay claim to her since she is proud to recite Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Delaware as her heritage.
Happily, Mrs. Monroe laid claim to Chickasaws.
Her journey in education, in helping others, a crusade assisting at-risk students has been full of twists, curves and detours. Merry Monroe navigated them all and, by doing so, enriched the lives of Chickasaws and non-Natives encountered along life’s path.
The Language of Silence
It was a hard-knock life for the Bakers. Mrs. Monroe’s father – who later in life would become a highly-respected minister in Indian Country – was reared by his father. At age 10, his father died. He was bandied about “by whatever relatives had the means to care for him,” Mrs. Monroe recalls. Ultimately, he was placed in Jones Academy, a Choctaw boarding school in Hartshorne, Okla.
He was fluent in both Chickasaw and Choctaw. But aside from a few words and phrases, he shared little of the language with his children. Indian boarding schools and social stigma were punitive. Only Anglo speech was considered the language of success.
Her maternal grandmother spoke fluent Creek but did not share the language for many of the same reasons, Mrs. Monroe remembers.
“As a child, I (was) staying with my grandmother and she was expecting the minister of her church to pay her a visit. When he arrived, they spoke entirely in Creek. I remember I wanted so badly to be able to speak with them,” she says with a profound introspection in her voice.
In 1964, her father accepted God’s call to lead the flock at the First Indian Baptist Church in Ada and the family relocated from Sapulpa. Because so many of the parishioners spoke Chickasaw, her father began teaching Mrs. Monroe and her siblings songs in the Choctaw and Chickasaw languages.
“Back then, I didn’t understand what I was singing about. I knew the words but not the meaning,” she explains.
An “insatiable yearning” to speak Native languages enveloped Mrs. Monroe, but it would only be as an adult her desire would be fulfilled — almost by happenstance — and the Chickasaw language would be passed on to future generations.
A Mother’s Encouragement
It was 1969 and 18-year-old Merry Baker was poised to graduate from Byng High School. She was a licensed cosmetologist and was anxious to attend nursing school. But injuries she sustained in an auto accident that summer lingered. Nursing school would have to wait.
Then-Byng Superintendent of Schools Marvin Stokes saw something special in Merry Baker. She had served Stokes as an aide and labored at sundry tasks. He approached her about going to work for Byng Schools in the Indian Education program, funded in part by the Johnson-O’Malley Act, as a tutor and teacher’s aide. She would teach — in addition to acting as a liaison — between the school and Native students and their parents.
Stokes, and Merry Baker, knew many Indian students were only accustomed to Native traditions – some still speaking their native tongues in the home. Stokes believed Merry Baker would be a familiar and welcome face to many of these students and to their parents.
But Merry Baker was hesitant. It meant commanding the attention of kindergarteners. It was her mother who said: “You can do this. You’ve been teaching (kindergarteners) Sunday School for years.”
She accepted Stokes’ offer in January 1970, all the while assuring herself it was only for a brief time. Nursing school beckoned.
She and her husband, Leonard Monroe, welcomed a daughter, Christy.
Mrs. Monroe continued teaching and assisting Native students.
One day she looked up at a calendar. It said “1983.”
A New Opportunity and a Suprise
The teacher with whom Mrs. Monroe worked very closely during those 13 years at Byng was Marilyn Hoehne. When a promotion to principal of Homer Elementary was offered her, she approached Mrs. Monroe about becoming her secretary.
Leaving the classroom was a difficult decision. It was made easier by a surprise blessing.
Leonard and Merry Monroe knew their one and only child would be Christy. That’s until son James decided to make his debut. Working half days at Homer proved to be just the schedule Mrs. Monroe needed to stay active professionally, yet fulfill domestic responsibilities, too.
It was a time of transition.
Mrs. Monroe found herself in many roles at Homer – secretary, enrollment coordinator, Johnson-O’Malley record-keeper and Indian Education aide and tutor.
For the next nine years, she moved between the three schools in the Byng system – Byng, Homer and Francis. Finally, in 1998, she found herself permanently officed at Byng High School working with not only Native students but all at-risk students within the system.
“There were kids I would start (helping) and I couldn’t leave them. I think that’s why I’ve been here so long,” Mrs. Monroe says smiling. “There’s always that student who makes me think ‘maybe I need to stay just a little bit longer.’”
The Times They are a Changin’
Mrs. Monroe’s “brief time” working for Byng Schools almost came to an end in 2002, 32 years after nursing school was “delayed.”
A new federal law dubbed “No Child Left Behind” was embraced by Washington, D.C. lawmakers. To continue helping students and staff, Mrs. Monroe needed 50 hours of college credit or pass a certification test. Without either, her days helping students and working staff support were finished.
“I just flat said I can’t take a certification test and I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to college,” she said.
Ultimately, Mrs. Monroe realized her only recourse was to begin higher education courses at East Central University nights and summers.
Mrs. Monroe decided to start slowly, enrolling in three classes totaling nine hours. They included Native American history, sign language and speech.
Together They Thrive
There were less than 10 Native Americans in her history class, yet they gravitated to one another and formed a study group. While never a quality test-taker – (“I freeze up taking tests”) – Mrs. Monroe earned good grades and assisted others with quality study time just as she had throughout her career at Byng.
Then, something profound happened; something that would change her life – and the lives of others – forever.
“About my third or fourth semester, ECU began offering a Chickasaw language class,” Mrs. Monroe recalls clearly. “I thought to myself ‘wow, I’m going to get in there and do this.’”
The instructor was Cedric Sunray. “Everything he was throwing at us I was just trying to grasp. A lot of what we were doing in that Chickasaw class I knew. I ended up doing really well,” Mrs. Monroe explains.
After a year, Mr. Sunray approached her. Had she learned enough to teach Chickasaw and get students started with the vocabulary and sentence structure at a Chickasaw language program at Byng?
While nodding her head “no,” somehow “yes” came forth.
Mrs. Monroe embarked upon finishing every Chickasaw language course offered at ECU. She attended classes offered by the Chickasaw Nation. She approached fluent Chickasaw language speaker Pauline Walker to learn more. She was accepted into the Chickasaw Nation’s Master Apprentice program and became immersed in the language with Mrs. Walker at the urging of Josh Hinson, director of the Chickasaw Nation Language Program.
She considered herself “not smart enough” to attend college. She doubted her ability to muster up the courage of finish 50 hours required by No Child Left Behind.
She proved herself wrong at every turn.
Mrs. Monroe earned a bachelor’s degree from ECU in Native American Studies in 2011.
“The 50 hours was what was required and the 50 hours was so I could continue to work. The rest of it was for me,” Mrs. Monroe says.
Today, after 43 years, Mrs. Monroe works part time for Byng Schools, arriving every day to teach students the Chickasaw language.
Mrs. Monroe is proud to be Chickasaw. As with most of her life journey, it was a coincidence she became a Chickasaw citizen. Her initial citizenship was with the Creek Nation.
“My dad always said our family was Chickasaw, but we didn’t have anything proving it. I was enrolled with the Creek Nation because of my mother. When my father’s mother died, she left behind papers. My father put them up on a shelf and that’s where they stayed. I was looking for something else one day and pulled the papers out,” Mrs. Monroe recalls.
“One of the papers said ‘proof of heirship’ and it named my great-grandfather as Chickasaw and his Dawes Commission roll number was 30,” she recalls in amazement as if she discovered the papers yesterday.
“I married a Chickasaw man. My children are Chickasaw. I live in Chickasaw Country. It is what I am. When I found the papers, I went to see Gina Brown (a Chickasaw Nation official who verifies citizenship documentation). She looked at the papers and said everything looked right,” Mrs. Monroe recalls.
“I just told her ‘OK, I’m coming home.’”