Cherokee Language Revitalization

From Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser (UNC Press, 2014), p. 212-213:

The English-only policies of the boarding schools were largely effective in achieving their purpose with respect to language. Across the United States, the vast majority of American Indian languages that survived the initial contact period have been lost or are currently endangered. Even among reservation groups, few people under fifty speak the heritage language. For example, a 2002 survey of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma found only about 10,000 fluent Cherokee speakers—almost all of whom were older than fifty—out of a population of 288,000. The situation is not much better in North Carolina. The 2000 U.S. Census reported 1,147 of the approximately 12,500 Cherokee in North Carolina as having some fluency in the language; however, a 2005 survey conducted by the tribe identified only 460 fluent speakers—of whom 72 percent were over fifty—a number that tribal elders claim has since dwindled to somewhere between 200 and 300. The tribe estimates that even with its preservation efforts, they are still losing an average of three Cherokee speakers a month.

This stark finding launched an intensive, community-based language revitalization project. For the community, more than the language is at stake. Native Cherokee speaker Myrtle Driver notes: “Our language is who we are. Once you start learning the language, it branches out to all other areas—history, culture, traditions. So, when they’re learning the language they’re learning, you know, everything about the Cherokee people as well.

The revitalization project has a number of initiatives, the first of which is the Kituwah Academy, an early childhood immersion program that teaches parents and children from seven months to age five to speak and read together in Cherokee. This early childhood component prepares the children for a total immersion curriculum that extends from preschool to fifth grade. To support the teaching of this program, the community has partnered with Western Carolina University, which boasts strong programs in elementary education and the Cherokee language so that students can now learn to deliver elementary school content in Cherokee. Jean Bushyhead, a local teacher, is optimistic about the chances for success in preserving the language: “The Cherokee culture and language will survive because of the great emphasis that has been going on for the last five or six years. And I think that we are getting to the children at the right time. And that is [from] birth … on.” Although the program directs most of its efforts toward young children, since 2007 all Cherokee students have been required to speak Cherokee in order to graduate from high school. While students sometimes resist such imposed mandates, and success in language learning is closely tied to a person’s desire to learn the language, in the case of Cherokee, many students are eager to learn….

The community has also begun adult education programs on the Qualla Boundary as well as intergenerational events that bring together the older and younger speakers of the language. And there is a Cherokee summer camp in the Snowbird community an hour south of the Qualla Boundary where children produce a play in Cherokee by the end of the summer. The Cherokee in North Carolina have also reached out to Cherokee groups in Oklahoma to create workshops to discuss their common language and help adapt it to the modern world. The program’s tasks include adding new words to Cherokee so that it can be used to teach state-mandated curricular content. The Cherokee Language Consortium, for example, has designated new Cherokee words for English words like cell phone, plastic, CD, computer, amoeba, galaxy, axis, biology, and astronaut.

Despite the current incentive, it is impossible to know what the future holds for the Cherokee language. The Kituwah dialect of Cherokee remains below the critical mass of speakers that would all us to comfortably predict it will continue to be a viable and flourishing language.

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Filed under education, language, migration, nationalism, U.S.

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