Cherokee fight to save language from extinction

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.

Read more: Mountain Xpress

Saving an Endangered Language

Walk past Abernethy Hall Room 102 on any given Friday afternoon during the semester and you’ll likely hear sounds of an endangered language wafting through the halls.

“Siyo.” (Hello.)

“Osigwotsu?” (How are you?)

“Osigwo.” (I am fine.)

“Ihina?” (And you?)

“Osda!” (Great!)

It’s “AniKahwi,” Cherokee Coffee Hour, for students interested in learning to speak Cherokee.

American studies assistant professor Ben Frey ’05 started the coffee hour in 2013 after returning to UNC-Chapel Hill as a Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow for Faculty Diversity. It is one of many ways he is working to revitalize the Cherokee language.

Indigenous people have spoken Cherokee in North Carolina for 11,000 years. Now, only 238 people — 1.4 percent of the 17,000 citizens of Eastern Band of Cherokees — speak the tribe’s Kituwah dialect. Most of them are 65 and older.

Preserving a culture’s language is important for many reasons, Frey said. Unique knowledge and traditions held by these cultures can offer solutions for today’s pressing challenges, from environmental sustainability to health care. Connecting to one’s heritage helps individuals and communities understand who they are.

Fortunately, Frey’s research on how language use declines — or shifts — offers a path forward to revive this endangered language.

Frey’s Cherokee language education began while he was a German and linguistics major at UNC in the early 2000s. A citizen of the Eastern Band, Frey grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Cherokee was not taught at home.

His grandmother was among the Cherokee youth removed from their homes, placed in boarding schools and punished for speaking the language by a U.S. government bent on eradicating native cultures. While she and Frey’s great-grandmother spoke Cherokee to each other when they didn’t want the children to understand, they did not pass on the language.

Read more: Carolina Arts & Sciences

Online classes, modern textbooks helping revitalize Cherokee language

Recent research focusing on Native American languages and how they are taught is helping revitalize the Cherokee language, in part, through online courses and modern textbooks developed by the Cherokee Nation.

Using these updated methods, the Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Language Program continues to have a far-reaching impact, with up to 3,000 students taking online courses and around 400 taking community classes each year. Participating students are from all ages and all corners of the world.

“There are so many people interested in preserving the language,” said Ed Fields, an online instructor with the Cherokee Language Program who has taught courses for more than a decade.

Fields teaches a 10-week, online Cherokee language course in the spring and fall each year, with participants gathering online one hour per day, two days a week. His spring course started April 10 and fall class will start Sept. 11, with registration opening Aug. 28. Through a live camera, students see Fields as he uses his own curriculum and life experiences to teach Cherokee.

Online Cherokee language classes are offered for free from the Cherokee Nation website

Read more: Cherokee Nation

Study shows children learning Cherokee are part of ongoing language renewal

Cherokee has been one of a number of endangered Native American languages to see a renaissance in recent history. A group of University of Kansas researchers has co-authored a study demonstrating that the ways children learn and speak the language in a Cherokee immersion school are an ongoing process of renewal rather than a return to an idealized notion of “speakerhood.”

Researchers gathered data on students’ Cherokee in oral, listening, reading and writing skills at Tsalagi Dideloquasdi, a Cherokee language immersion school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, that is a core part of Cherokee Nation’s revitalization efforts. They found the school to be a “quintessential translanguaging space,” in which students’ competencies are formed by the students, teachers, parents and members of the community, as well as the historical fluidity of Cherokee-English bilingualism. In other words, as their language skills develop, the students communicate in an innovative hybrid form of Cherokee rather than adhering to rigid language rules.

“We’ve looked meticulously at how they’re piecing together this complex morphology of the Cherokee language, which is very different from English,” said Lizette Peter, associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching. “We view these students as language boundary crossers. They don’t see English and Cherokee as two distinct, separate languages. They’re creating linguistic possibilities never before seen in the acquisition of Cherokee.”

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Cherokee Look for Ways to Save Their Dying Language

WHITTIER, N.C.—In a cozy house in a bucolic valley, a handful of students gather weekly to learn how to speak the language of their Cherokee ancestors.

The Cherokee people once occupied a large swath of the southeast U.S. Most Cherokee, as well as neighboring tribes, were forcibly relocated by the federal government in the 1830s to what is now Oklahoma, an event known as “the Trail of Tears.” Some Cherokee avoided or escaped the removal and stayed in North Carolina, forming the basis for what is today the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, a federally recognized tribe.

But only 200 or so people are fluent now around the mountain town of Cherokee, N.C., out of the roughly 14,000 Cherokee who live in the area. “We’ve somehow got to learn some of it, because it’s part of who we are,” said student Louise Taylor Goings, 68 years old, who remembers hearing her parents speak to each other in Cherokee when she was little.

Read more: The Wall Street Journal

How the Cherokee language has adapted to texts, iPhones

Whenever a new communication technology was introduced into society, the Cherokee people have ensured that their written language could adapt.

From the printing press and the typewriter to today’s readily available digital technologies like computers and smart phones, the Cherokee language is fully functional thanks to the help of tireless advocates and activists.

As one of the most actively used native languages in the US, the Cherokee language is spoken by populations in North Carolina and Oklahoma, as well as other states across the country. While more people are now able to write the Cherokee language with syllabics — written characters that each represent a syllable — retaining and encouraging more speakers of the language continues to be a high priority. And the use of technology has been one way to attract increased interest.

Read more: PRI