Cherokee fight to save language from extinction

A SPECIAL PLACE: Western Carolina University students who are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hold "wi," a symbol in the Cherokee language for "place." Photo courtesy of WCU

In classrooms throughout North Carolina and Oklahoma, students are learning about the periodic table of elements or the origins of the Civil War. However, in some classrooms, the lessons are a bit more personal — Cherokee students are learning the history and language of their people.

Cherokee speakers have made great efforts to keep their language alive. But often the schools, programs and tribes involved in that work haven’t shared resources or strategies to achieve their goal. That changed over the summer when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma signed a memorandum of agreement to protect and preserve the tribes’ shared language, history and culture. The signing took place July 24 at Kituwah Mound near the modern-day Western North Carolina town of Cherokee, the center of the historical Kituwah village that is known as the place of origin for the Cherokee people.

EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed says the preservation plan that will result from the agreement is meant to address the siloing that can occur among the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. (The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, also based in Oklahoma, plans to sign the memorandum at a later date). Each group has its own Cherokee language programs, curriculum and teaching tools. Cherokee Central Schools, a K-12 education system operated by the EBCI since 1990, also has its own language curriculum and developed a language app.

“We’re stronger together than we are separate,” Sneed says. “Let’s pool all of our resources, share resources and open source what we have.”

One component of the plan is a commitment between Western Carolina University and Northeastern State University in Oklahoma to “support Cherokee language revitalization efforts guided by the Cherokee tribes,” says Sara Snyder Hopkins, who directs the Cherokee Language Program at WCU.

“It commits us to share language and cultural pedagogical materials between university and tribal programs,” Hopkins explains. Resources could include instructional videos, children’s books and information about cultural sites.

A state of emergency

The memorandum follows a 2019 resolution from the three tribes declaring that the Cherokee language was in a state of emergency. “Each Cherokee tribe is losing fluent speakers at faster rates than new Cherokee speakers are developed,” the document warned.

Out of roughly 13,000 enrolled EBCI members, about 180 people speak Cherokee fluently; most are senior citizens. There are approximately 2,000 Cherokee speakers worldwide, according to the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee language has several dialects; the Kituwah and Overhill dialects are the two most commonly spoken today. But all variations of Cherokee were suppressed for centuries following the European “civilization” of the Cherokee Nation that began during the late 1700s, according to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

The federal government also operated boarding schools for Cherokee children from 1893 until 1948. In these schools, tribal youngsters were forced to live away from their families, learn to read, write and speak English and dress in European clothing. Teachers often punished students for speaking their own language; the intention was to “assimilate” Native Americans by eradicating their cultural identity.

“Non-Cherokee Americans [need] to understand that the crises in language and cultural preservation are created by our governmental policies,” says Brett Riggs, a professor of Cherokee studies at WCU. “It was policy to transform Indigenous people to conform to the cultural norms of dominant Western society, and Indigenous languages were devalued and discouraged.”

Sneed, who was raised in Illinois, recalls moving to North Carolina for high school and being surprised at how few people were speaking Cherokee. “I didn’t understand the generational historic trauma because of boarding schools,” he says.

Congress passed the Native American Languages Act in 1990 to promote Native American children learning their ancestral language. But experts say teaching the Cherokee language is a race against time.

“Here in North Carolina, there will be almost no first-language Cherokee speakers left within the next 30 years,” says Hopkins. ”This means that second-language learners are crucial to the preservation and continuation of the language.”

“It’s now or never,” she adds.

‘Working against a clock’

The WCU Cherokee Center, located on EBCI land in Cullowhee, is a focal point of Cherokee language preservation and history. The college primarily teaches the Kituwah dialect for the spoken language, says Riggs. WCU began offering an undergraduate minor in Cherokee studies in the 1980-81 school year, and in 1996, the department of history developed a Cherokee studies track within its Master of Arts in American History — in part because of the lack of such programs that existed at the time.

Currently, WCU offers two introductory and two intermediate Cherokee language courses, a literature course and several history and anthropology courses. UNC Asheville offers two introductory and one intermediate language courses; Northeastern University in Oklahoma is the only other college in the country to teach Cherokee.

A crucial component of the WCU program is not only teaching Cherokee as a second language but also  empowering those second-language speakers to teach, says Rainy Brake, a Cherokee language instructor at the university since 2019.

One teaching opportunity is the immersion program at The New Kituwah Academy in Cherokee. (A second immersion program, The Cherokee Immersion School founded by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 2001, is in Tahlequah, Okla.) The private school puts fluent Cherokee language speakers and members of the tribe in the classroom alongside teachers like Brake, who studied Cherokee as a second language at WCU and taught at the academy for 10 years before returning to the university.

“The children are completely kept in Cherokee language all day long,” says Brake, noting that students otherwise follow the North Carolina state curriculum. Teachers also incorporate Cherokee culture and art into their lessons, and fluent speakers eat lunch with the kids to continue Cherokee conversation at mealtime.

“The reason we push it so hard … is when there’s only 180 speakers, you’re kind of working against a clock,” Brake says. “We’re trying to immerse as many people as we possibly can as quickly as we can.”

Preserving and developing

Currently, all curricula for Cherokee language instruction by the tribes and universities are different. The memorandum could lead to standardization among the three tribes, Sneed says.

However, it is a subject of controversy whether only one dialect should be taught across all Cherokee programs or whether more should be incorporated. Sneed notes that the dialects are similar enough that speakers can understand each other but are still clearly different.

“Purists kind of frown upon [standardizing curricula], because they feel like the old dialect is being lost,” Sneed explains. “I can certainly understand their concern and the attachment to that, but I think it’s more important that we are focused on proliferating Cherokee language more so than we are correcting dialect.”

Another aspect of Cherokee language that is already standardized is the development of new vocabulary. A consortium gathers fluent speakers from the three tribes several times a year to develop new words. Because Cherokee is an ancient language, notes Sneed, current speakers need to establish a lexicon for modern objects, such as an iPhone or an iPad, and phrases like “trick or treat.”

Cherokee can be a challenging language to learn, adds Sneed. It uses a syllabary: 85 written symbols, each of which signifies a different syllable. Its difficulty makes the language’s survival particularly meaningful, suggests Sneed: “It demonstrates the resilience of Native nations to continue to develop and proliferate our language and culture.”

There is always more work to be done. “Revitalization is a moving target,” says Hopkins from WCU. “The only way to keep the language alive is to fight tooth and nail in a thousand small ways, over and over and over.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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