Groups bring new life to the ancient Cherokee language

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Myrtle Driver teaches Cherokee words and syllabary terms for painting, and reviews kickball terms at Cherokee Language and Culture Camp held at Big Cove Recreation Center in Cherokee, N.C., on Monday, July 9. “First and foremost is to save our language,” Driver says. Mike Belleme/Carolina Public Press

CHEROKEE — A van packed with campers wet from swimming pulls up by the Big Cove Recreation Center on a simmering June day. The campers pile out, shouting “Siyo!” and sporting big smiles as they enter their classroom at their Cherokee Language and Culture Camp.

“Siyo” means hello in Cherokee, and tribal leaders say it is a word heard much more often today around Cherokee and in the halls of the New Kituwah Academy, the Cherokee language immersion school of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and even off the Qualla Boundary, thanks to several stages of language revitalization efforts since 2005.

Bringing the Cherokee language back to life after centuries of assimilation is uniting enrolled members of the Eastern Band, faculty and staff members at Western Carolina University and enrolled members of the two other federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees.

Last week, representatives of the sister tribes met on the Qualla Boundary for a language consortium to add new words to the Cherokee lexicon. The group meets quarterly to keep a language spoken for hundreds of years relevant for the youngest generation of students at New Kituwah Academy and an Oklahoman immersion school.

Progress, leaders in the language movement say, is in the details.

Renissa Walker, manager of KPEP: Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, the organization behind New Kituwah Academy, recalled recently eating dinner in a pizza parlor in Bryson City with her family and hearing an elder call “Siyo” to her across a crowded room.

“It’s a difference (from seven years ago),” she said. “I guess the best way to explain it is that we really have put language in a public place where they’re proud that they’re Cherokee speakers. They’re not different. They’re special.”

A plan to revive the language

Kiyuga (Cherokee for chipmunk), 2, identifies fellow classmates by reading their names in the syllabary as she is quizzed by her teacher, Noquisi, at the Cherokee Language Academy in Cherokee, N.C., on Monday, July 9. The academy’s purpose is to preserve the Cherokee language. Mike Belleme/Carolina Public Press

In 2005, a comprehensive language survey found 460 speakers in Cherokee communities, with 72 percent being older than 50. The survey was an “eye-opener,” Walker said. Today, the tribe has fewer Cherokee speakers—between 250 and 270, Walker estimated. According to a report by the Cherokee One Feather newspaper, tribal enrollment of the Eastern Band was 14,667 and the number of tribal members on tribal land was 8,180 as of July.

Also in 2005, the tribe initiated KPEP and developed a 10-year plan to bring the Cherokee language back to life, raise awareness and increase fluency. In recent years, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation has invested $3 million in KPEP and other language revitalization efforts, including cultural camps and programs at Cherokee Central School.

Susan Jenkins is the executive director of the foundation, a primarily gaming-funded entity created by a compact between the Eastern Band and the state. Jenkins said language revitalization is a problem for all indigenous communities — not just the Cherokee tribes. And it’s a problem requiring a layered response.

“The work of language revitalization means that you have to create an infrastructure, create new words that reflect today’s society, develop curriculum that mirrors the standards of the local schools and work with universities to make sure they have teachers that are certified and can speak the language,” Jenkins said in an e-mail.

Walker noted that KPEP’s community programs receive the largest portion of their foundation funding because they are project-based. KPEP’s intern program is included in the grant. Young people — high school age and older — apprentice in academy classroom, where, she said they learn along with the children.

“We’re trying to bridge a gap between the youngest speakers and the fluent speakers, who are 55-plus,” she said.

Walker recalled a 15-year-old who had a desire to learn the language because her grandmother spoke Cherokee. Courses at a local high school didn’t take her far, so she began interning in the academy and after college became a lead Cherokee teacher in an academy classroom.

“Through her own persistence and being thrown into the immersion environment, she has learned and tested, and we could have fluent speakers give a testimonial,” Walker said. “She is fluent enough to run a classroom.”

WCU’s initiatives

Western Carolina University also has Cherokee language programs. Walker said KPEP and WCU are collaborating with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction on a proficiency exam in Cherokee for potential teachers.

Roseanna Belt is the director of WCU’s Cherokee Center. Built 35 years ago, the Cherokee Center once gave Cherokee students a convenient setting for taking general education requirements. Now, Belt said, it’s a bridge between the Cherokee and WCU communities.

WCU offers undergraduates a minor in Cherokee Studies and graduate students a certificate in Cherokee Studies or master’s degree in American history with a Cherokee Studies track specialization. In the past several years, the only classes taught at the Cherokee Center are evening Cherokee language classes. The Center also records Cherokee speakers.

Belt recalled a success story of a woman who graduated with a master’s degree focused on Cherokee studies at WCU who now teaches at the academy. “She’s a non-Indian, but she relates to tribes, especially the Cherokee. She’s pretty much fluent now,” Belt said.

The language revitalization process is working, Belt said

“The problem is, it’s a slow process,” she said. “The language was destroyed much quicker than it can be restored.”

New words, new learners

Bo Lossiah, a curriculum specialist at the Cherokee Language Academy and member of the Cherokee Language Consortium, demonstrates the Cherokee syllabary font created at the academy, on Monday, July 9. “I’m still learning the language,” he says. “Most people will tell you that their parents spoke the language better, or their grandparents spoke the language better.” Mike Belleme/Carolina Public Press

Last week, representatives of the three sister Cherokee tribes gathered for the language consortium. Tribal leaders updated the language with modern words from science and popular culture, from “galaxy” to “amoeba” to “Transformers” for the New Kituwah Academy and the Oklahoman immersion school.

Renissa Walker, KPEP’s manager, emphasized that Cherokee is a very literal language.

For example, past additions to the lexicon include “computer,” which translates literally in English to “the thing that makes you lazy.”

And while new words are being created, leaders are working to build new speakers, too.

All instruction at the New Kituwah Academy is carried out in the Cherokee language, for infants up to third-graders. Gil Jackson, the school’s administrator, said he expects 85 students in August — 50 of them preschoolers, some as young as six weeks old.

Yet he also expects to lose about two fluent, elder speakers per month due to death.

“Generally, the older you are, the stronger the speaker you are,” Jackson said. “We’re losing a lot of words and speakers. The kids we have are fluent for the age group they are in. In some ways the revitalization is happening, but when older speakers die, they take words with them…We can only teach what we know.”

Jackson said students are introduced around their first birthday to recognizing their name in Cherokee syllabary, the written language developed by Sequoyah in the early 1800s. Some of the 4-year-olds before they enter kindergarten know most of the characters in the syllabary and can count to 100 in Cherokee.

“English is their dominant language, but they’re pretty fluent in Cherokee,” he said. “They can write complex sentences.”

Jackson said the interview process for the students’ parents is rigorous, too.

“They have to demonstrate to us that they really have an interest in saving the language,” he said.

Specifically, Jackson is looking for parents who want to learn the language with their child. Applicants with Cherokee language speakers in the home like grandparents may get points towards admission, if the grandparent interacts with the child two to three time a week or daily, if possible.

The parents do pay a certain amount of tuition, Jackson said, but it’s “dirt cheap.” He declined to reveal the exact figure but said it was less than childcare.

Jackson speculated about whether the Cherokee language can make a comeback.

“It’s probably coming back, but it will probably never come back as strong as it once was,” he said. “We are trying to capture it as much as we can.”

Cross-generational efforts

Back at this summer’s language and culture camp at Big Cove, the 25 campers age 6 to 16 are mostly students from the academy. Only 10 campers are non-academy students who require English translated into Cherokee. Their academy peers, even the 6-year-olds, assist and correct older campers newer to the language.

The camp is directed by Myrtle Driver, an elder in the Eastern Band whose first language is Cherokee. Driver, the mother of Walker, the KPEP manager, is also a leader of the monthly Speakers Gatherings, which bring fluent, generally older speakers of Cherokee together to preserve words and culture. She is also a prolific translator of English books into Cherokee, including Charles Frazier’s “Thirteen Moons.” She has been the instructor for Big Cove’s language and culture camp for seven years. Another camp also runs independently in Snowbird.

“Very few of the children in the camp have parents or grandparents who speak Cherokee,” Driver said. So she said she begins teaching the children the language orally before introducing the written language.

“It’s best to learn the language first and then the syllabary comes easier,” Driver said.

KPEP, the Eastern Band’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation sponsor the camp, although Walker said it’s not run directly by KPEP because KPEP is stretched so thin with the academy and community programs. Though new teachers are being hired, administrators are not.

“Administratively, we just had to take a break,” Walker said, noting that her mother was determined to continue the camp tradition.

“We’re wearing out our resources,” Walker said. Those resources include tribal elders like Driver.

From the perspective of KPEP Community Language Supervisor Cynthia Grant, Cherokee language preservation is progressing along, evidenced in the details of daily life. She said she sees Cherokee tattoos and license plates cropping up around town, and she hears Cherokee at sporting events.

“I know a youth football coach who has taken the time to research and do the plays in Cherokee and name them,” Grant said.

“So he’s standing, yelling ‘yona,’ which is bear, and they’re getting the kids fired up,” she said.

“It’s OK for us to use our language and talk,” she said. “It’s getting out there, it’s getting better. Better than not at all.”

Online resources

Learn more about the Cherokee spoken language and written syllabary by visiting online:

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About the Author

Katy Nelson

Katy Nelson is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at katy.nelson@gmail.com.

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