Iolo Williams is one of the Wales’ most recognized TV personalities. “Wildlife” Williams, as he is known by some fans, or “Birdman” as he is known by others, revolutionized BBC nature shows by bringing heady ecology together with rugged good looks and his native language, Welsh.
Williams and his production crew traveled to Cherokee this past week to film an episode of a series whose working titles is “Iolo yn Native America,” scheduled to air in the UK later this year.
The crew –– camera director Mei Williams, researcher Luke Peavey, and producer Bethan Arwell –– have already cut an episode in Navajo country.
But for Iolo, the trip to Cherokee was special, primarily because he sees the parallels between the Cherokee and Welsh efforts to revive their native languages.
“Williams in Native America” is being filmed entirely in Welsh and the indigenous languages of the tribes Iolo interacts with.
“When I was little, Welsh wasn’t cool, and that’s a big thing for kids,” Williams said. “But there’s been a massive revival, mostly through education. With the Cherokee, and with this school, you can see there’s hope now.”
Last Thursday, Iolo visited the Kituwah Immersion Language Academy, the Cherokee’s state of the art new immersion school.
Williams grew up in Llanwwddyn in the Welsh midlands as a Welsh speaker and a child yearning for wild places. His imagination was captivated my Native Americans from an early age.
“One of the main reasons is because of the huge similarities I see between the Native Americans and the plight of the Welsh,” Williams said.
Americans know little of Welsh history. But if your name is Thomas, Morris, Williams or Jones, chances are you could trace the roots of your family tree and wind up somewhere near Cardiff or Builth Wells.
Wales was conquered by England over 800 years ago, and since that time they have slowly become Anglicized.
“A lot of our old traditional ways are long gone, but we do have differences from the English, especially with regard to the ways we value our family and the language,” Williams said.
Today, only 1 in 10 Welsh speak their native tongue, but it is taught to schoolchildren and is an official language in the country. Welsh is cool again, and the Welsh are exploring the boundaries of their own identity. While the English have forgotten they did anything bad to the Welsh, the Welsh haven’t forgotten.
Williams said he admires the way the Cherokee have taken advantage of the economic benefits available in American society while working hard to preserve their own identity.
“The Cherokee haven’t forgotten,” Williams said. “They do remember, but they’ve moved on. You know we still hate the English.”
As Williams and his team toured the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, he felt a sense of satisfaction.
“It looks like you’ve caught the Cherokee language within a hair’s breadth of dying out,” Williams said. “This really has to be the way forward. There’s a lot of personal responsibility placed on the individual when a language is dying, but education has to be the way forward.”
Williams and his crew will return to Wales to work on other projects before coming back to the United States and Canada to film episodes with the Haida, Lakota, Blackfoot, and Northern Cree tribes.
The show has not yet been scheduled for airtimes in Wales, but Iolo said anybody interested in watching has plenty of time to practice their Welsh.