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Becky Johnson photo
Building the basics
Tracy Long, a Cherokee artist, carves the Cherokee syllabary into wooden baby blocks — a take-off on the traditional ABC letter blocks that are a requisite part of any child’s toy collection. For older kids, she makes a Scrabble game, with tiny wooden cubes engraved in the Cherokee syllabary.
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Becky Johnson photo
Where the fire is rebuilt
New Kituwah Language Academy is the frontline of language revitalization for the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Kylie Shuler (pictured) is elementary principal of the school.
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Becky Johnson photo
New Kituwah Language Academy third-graders Prarie Toineeta and Makala McGaha (right) spend free time reading and listening to a story in Cherokee on the computer.
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Becky Johnson photo
A full inbox
Bo Lossiah translates books and media that teachers at New Kituwah desperately need in the classroom. Lossiah, 44, is one of the rare few in his generation who heard Cherokee growing up. “My father spoke only Cherokee to me but my mom didn’t speak at all. Like most people I didn’t learn what I could have or should have from him," he says.
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Shapes and colors
Western Carolina University's Cherokee Language Program is helping create much-needed children’s books in Cherokee, including the latest "Animal Colors" by Beth Fielding and published by Waynesville, N.C.’s, EarlyLight Books.
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Becky Johnson photo
A line drawn
A sign over the front door of New Kituwah Language Academy signals the beginning of Cherokee language immersion.
When Samantha Crowe-Hernandez packs her three young children into the car for a Sunday afternoon visit with their great- grandparents, she’s bearing a special gift—a living testament to the Cherokee people’s resilience despite centuries of repression, a promise that the Cherokee language, once given up for lost, is being reborn.
Crowe-Hernandez’s three children have been immersed in the Cherokee language since infancy at the New Kituwah Language Academy, a day-care and elementary school on the Cherokee Reservation in the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina.
Seventy years ago, Crowe-Hernandez’s grandparents grew up hearing and speaking nothing but Cherokee in the traditional Snowbird community, a stronghold of Cherokee people and culture that borrows its name from the remote and rugged Snowbird Mountains outside Robbinsville, N.C. But they purposely didn’t pass the language on to their own seven children.
The white world looked down on speaking Cherokee as ignorant and backward. Like so many of their generation, they were forced into government boarding schools where speaking their native tongue came with the risk of a beating and having their mouth washed out with soap.
“They get emotional because they say it has been so long since they’ve heard children speak Cherokee,” Crowe-Hernandez said about her family’s elders. “That’s not something they could even fathom, that there would be a new generation of speakers.”
Sadly, over just two generations’ time, the language nearly ceased to exist. The number of fluent speakers in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians dwindled to just 300 people out of the tribe’s 14,000 members, mostly elderly.
But today, thanks to the New Kituwah Language Academy, Crowe-Hernandez’ baby spoke her first word—mommy—in Cherokee. Dozens of children are learning Cherokee as infants and becoming fluent themselves as they move up through the grades.
A sign hanging over the front entrance proclaims in all-capital letters “ENGLISH STOPS HERE.”
“If you think about how folks practice and learn English, they are surrounded by it. It is embedded in everything around them,” said Charlie Myers of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which helps fund language immersion. “We are trying to create that environment for the Cherokee language.”
Now, instead of speaking Cherokee in the home and absorbing English at school, it’s the other way around.
Switching between languages—Cherokee at school, English at home—isn’t hard to Makala McGaha, an 8-year-old at New Kituwah. Makala’s mother, as with nearly all the parents who send their kids to New Kituwah, knows only limited Cherokee herself. She is trying to learn, but “it’s real hard for her,” Makala said of her mom.
For the kids, however, it’s second nature—which, indeed, is the entire concept behind an immersion school.
“Those kids, the second you tell them a new word, they know it,” said Shayla Jackson, a Cherokee college student who interned at the academy last summer.
Cherokee is the only Native American language with a written alphabet, invented in the early 1800s by the Cherokee man Sequoyah. Technically called a syllabary, the 86 characters may seem daunting to decipher, but Prarie Toineeta, a third-grader at New Kituwah, rattles through the intricate characters with ease.
“It’s easy,” Prarie said. Sticking out her finger, she began writing the syllabary in the air while reciting their sounds “ga, tsa, di, li, me, na….”
Despite the amazing success stories that unfold every day at New Kituwah, the challenges are enormous. The biggest is simply finding enough Cherokee speakers. Of the roughly 300 fluent speakers in the Eastern Band, many are too old or not healthy enough to be in a classroom all day, or simply lack the skills to work in early childhood development.
“We have the space. The tribe has the funds. We have the waiting list,” Jackson said. “We need the speakers who are able to step up.”
When Kituwah opened its doors, there were only a few classrooms for babies. But as the oldest children moved through preschool and began advancing up through the grades, the school had to keep adding a new class every year, compounding the shortage of fluent teachers. The school now goes through third grade.
Lacking enough fluent speakers born into the language, the school supplements its classrooms with teachers who have undertaken the monumental task of learning the language as an adult. Among them is Crowe-Hernandez, a teacher at the school her children attend. She learned basic Cherokee going to school on the reservation—how to say cat and dog, the seasons, your name, and the colors—the 101 essentials. As a former Miss Cherokee, she was a cultural ambassador for the tribe, and was regularly called on to make appearances at tribal functions. One such appearance was a language symposium, where she heard a talk on the slow death of the Cherokee language as the tribe’s last fluent speakers aged. That’s when she had an epiphany, switched college majors from nursing to teaching, and dedicated herself to helping keep the language alive.
Kylie Shuler, the principal of New Kituwah’s Elementary School side, is also a second-language learner. It is her first year at the school and finding her way has been tough at times. Some of the first phrases she learned were “You look pretty today” or “I like your outfit” to use when greeting each student who walks through the front doors in the morning.
Shuler grew up in Snowbird and was a high school science teacher in Robbinsville. She recently went back to school and got her masters specifically with the goal of becoming the principal at New Kituwah.
Shuler’s own grandmother was fluent but had the language beaten out of her at government boarding school—the same sad but familiar story of most—and never passed it on to her own children.
Ironically, learning the Cherokee language is catching on outside Cherokee itself. Non-Cherokee students at nearby Western Carolina University are majoring in Cherokee studies and taking it as a foreign language. A white attorney from the neighboring town of Sylva heads to Cherokee on his lunch hour once a week for free, drop-in beginner grammar classes. A white college student from Alabama spent last summer as a volunteer at Kituwah Academy.
For some, it’s simply a fascinating subject. To others, the grace and wisdom encoded in the language is a path to a deeper and broader understanding of the world. Still others are learning it as a symbol of moral support for what their Cherokee neighbors are doing—a way of saying “we salute you and your efforts.”
On the outside, the Cherokee language seems alive and well. Street signs are in Cherokee. Police officers have Cherokee syllabary on their uniform badges. The pastor of Big Cove Baptist Church gives sermons in Cherokee.
But to Tom Belt, the tribe has a long row to hoe. Scattering the Cherokee syllabary around on signs and teaching students their numbers and colors in Cherokee doesn’t count in his eyes as keeping the language alive.
“One language is not just a code for another language,” said Belt, a fluent speaker and Cherokee studies professor at Western Carolina University. “It’s more than just a communicative tool. Language is the core of the culture. It is a way of being.”
Belt said the loss of the Cherokee language wasn’t noticed until it was nearly too late.
“Our language was always around, and there were always people who spoke it. You thought there was a never ending supply and it was always going to be there,” Belt said. “Suddenly, we realized we were in a critical situation. We had no new speakers. We had no one to replace them.”
On the heels of that realization came an even graver one: that the Cherokee language is a fundamental part of what it means to be Cherokee.
“Language is the way in which we interpret the world,” Belt said. “It is a way of looking at the world, a way of thinking. Within the language there is a storehouse of wisdom and knowledge that goes back hundreds of years.”
Researchers outside Cherokee have turned to fluent speakers to help unlock that knowledge. An ethno botanist has been systematically recording Cherokee words for native plants and trees.
“In it you find out a little bit more about the innate properties and qualities of those plants. Embedded in that identification process is what that plant is for,” Belt said.
Revitalizing a dying language takes more than simply teaching it to the next generation, however. Proponents early on realized it would take a highly complex strategy on several fronts.
“When we started out we weren’t sure how to do it,” Jackson said.
Until recently, for example, Cherokee didn’t count as a foreign language in the eyes of universities and colleges. It posed a conundrum for high school students, who had to choose between giving up coveted course time in their school day for Cherokee language versus a bona fide foreign language that would pass muster with college admissions officers.
“I learned Spanish before I learned Cherokee,” said Teria Morgan, a recently graduated high school senior from Cherokee, who had to plug away at Spanish during high school to get the requisite foreign language credits under her belt.
A massive effort on the tribe’s part convinced the sixteen universities in the North Carolina system last year to finally recognize Cherokee as a foreign language, freeing up critical time in students’ class schedules to take Cherokee language without giving up college-centric coursework.
At the same time, the tribe had to work through the American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages to get specific certification standards for teachers, an objective way to measure their competence as foreign language instructors.
While the majority of Cherokee youth attend tribally-run schools in Cherokee, a couple of hundred live in surrounding communities and attend public schools off the reservation. The tribe has been working with the public school systems in neighboring counties to offer Cherokee language in those schools by providing a language instructor for free to a school willing to offer the classes.
“At one time people were saying ‘It ain’t going to work. It just ain’t going to work. It never has, it never will,’” Jackson said. “Now they see our kids read, write, talk—even fight and argue—in Cherokee.”
Nowhere else have the components for such a language restoration project fallen into place: a core of fluent speakers, young people with a desire to learn, broad community support and all-important money to make it happen.
“The tribe has made a huge commitment to this,” said Susan Jenkins, the executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. “I don’t know another tribe that is putting this many resources into language revitalization.”
A wildly successful resort-style casino and hotel operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee has brought unprecedented wealth to the tribe over the past fifteen years. Casino profits are pumped into improving the lives of people in Cherokee—bolstering education, health care, housing, job training, business development and social programs. On the recreation front, casino revenue has built a movie theater, a golf course, a skateboard park and greenway. Tourism has also gotten a piece of the pie, like new visitor centers, tourist shuttle busses, evening bonfires featuring Cherokee storytellers, and a beautifications to downtown streets and shopping districts.
But the tribe has also made a point of investing in its own culture. Millions have been invested into language revitalization, including the $8 million construction of the New Kituwah school and an annual operating budget, thanks to casino profits.
“The difference the casino has made is it has been able to apply significant resources to it,” said Myers of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. “It has transitioned from exposure to it, to developing real fluency. If you aren’t able to speak it, then the language isn’t really that alive. We think it is important that it is used daily, and not archived somewhere like the Smithsonian.”
The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has played a lead role in both funding and steering language revitalization over the past decade. The Foundation, also funded by casino profits, makes 50 to 55 grants a year for an array of projects and programs—including renewable energy, economic development and cultural initiatives. Language revitalization has gotten $3.5 million from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation over the past decade on top of the millions by the tribe itself.
As the Cherokee people stare down the loss of their language, they are hardly alone. The world had 6,000 languages at one time, and has fewer than 2,000 left. Hundreds of those are in jeopardy, including dozens from Native American tribes that unlike the Cherokee have no hope of saving their dialect with only a few fluent speakers in their 90s still left.
Within the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the number of fluent speakers sadly gets smaller each year—there are around 300 fluent speakers, but they are dying at the rate of 15 to 20 a year, a pace that’s likely to accelerate as the group of fluent speakers continue to age.
The hope is one day soon the number will begin growing again, as new speakers become fluent and join the list.
“We are up against a challenging situation. We don’t have 20 or 30 years so there is an urgency,” Myers said. “If we aren’t getting there quick enough, we will know we need to step it up a little more.”
Translating the present to preserve the past
As students at the New Kituwah Language Academy climb into higher elementary grades, teaching increasingly complex subject matters in Cherokee-only lessons can be difficult. The Cherokee language simply doesn’t have words in its vocabulary that a teacher needs—mammal, habitat, solar system or interrogative sentence—to teach the standard state curriculum.
So every quarter, top Cherokee speakers from the Eastern Band and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma gather for two intensive days of creating new words. The work helps keep the language alive and modern, filling in the gaps for new words coming along in English, like computer or rocket ship, but the lion’s share of the work is backfilling the language with words that Cherokee simply never had before.
At the most recent gathering, held in a classroom of the New Kituwah Language Academy in Cherokee, forty fluent speakers joked, gossiped and bantered in Cherokee as they ticked though a list of 200 words they were tasked with inventing over the two-day consortium.
Take tundra, for instance—school kids need it for studying habitats around the globe, but the Cherokee never had the need for a word describing a barren, sub-arctic landscape. There was no such word for saltwater, but teachers needed it not only to describe the difference between freshwater and saltwater, but also when doing chemistry experiments.
Another challenge for older grades, however, is the lack of textbooks and worksheets in Cherokee.
“The wish list is huge,” said Bo Lossiah, whose desk is buried with stacks of books that need translating into Cherokee, from infant and toddler picture books to lesson plans for second graders.
Bo Lossiah, 44, is one of the rare few in his generation who heard Cherokee growing up.
“My father spoke only Cherokee to me but my mom didn’t speak at all. So to learn in a household you need two people to speak. I heard it all my life but I can’t speak it like they can,” Lossiah said. “Like most people I didn’t learn what I could have or should have from him.”
Like so many others who found their way to the halls of New Kituwah, Lossiah’s career path took a drastic turn to get there. He was the head chef at Lulu’s, a famous restaurant and mainstay in nearby Sylva, N.C., largely removed from reservation life for years.
He was getting a degree at Western Carolina University in electronic media when he began filling his class schedule with courses in Cherokee culture and language.
“I was never going to get my degree, because I was taking all these Cherokee classes for fun,” Lossiah said.
The university helped him combine the fields to end up with a major in electronic media and minor in Cherokee studies—giving him the coveted skill set to translate books and media that teachers at New Kituwah desperately needed in the classroom.
Thanks to his much-needed intersection of skills, Lossiah also shoots video, splices together audio recordings and creates digital books paired with the spoken Cherokee word.
Occasionally, he’ll steal time for his own pet projects, like a poster on the wall above his desk with a picture of Albert Einstein and the famous quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” His Cherokee version translates roughly as “What I envision is more powerful than what I know.”