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More than words: New building a center for Cherokee language preservation

A New Kituwah Academy student helps celebrate the event by participating in a traditional dance. Holly Kays photo A New Kituwah Academy student helps celebrate the event by participating in a traditional dance. Holly Kays photo

A ribbon-cutting ceremony held Friday, Feb. 16, for a building dedicated to preserving the Cherokee language was a celebration of the culture and language that has formed the Cherokee people for countless generations. 

More than 200 people gathered for a ceremony that was nearly half over before a single word of English was spoken. Instead, it showcased Cherokee-language speeches from tribal elders who grew up speaking it and musical performances from the new generation learning their ancestral language at New Kituwah Academy. The school is located just a stone’s throw away from the new building, which is called kalvgviditsa tsalagi aniwonisgi tsunatsohisdihi, or in English, Cherokee Speakers Place.

Roger Smoker, chairman of the Cherokee Speaker’s Council, said that the building will be a place where Cherokee language learners can gather to hone their skills, where the Cherokee Speakers Council can meet and where the Speakers Consortium bringing together fluent speakers in all three Cherokee tribes can gather when it’s held on the Qualla Boundary.

“This new building will house the second language speakers, and it will benefit our communities and represent the committed values of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” he said. 

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Cherokee speakers, elected officials and leaders ribbon on the new Cherokee Speakers Place. Holly Kays photo

Not so long ago, Cherokee was the dominant language among tribal members, and English the minority. But over the last century or so that dynamic has reversed. Through the 1970s, Native American children were often forced to attend boarding schools where speaking the indigenous language was discouraged or even punished, leading to many children of that generation ceasing to speak the language of their elders fluently, or at all, and finding themselves incapable of passing it down to their own children. As the 21st century dawned, tribal leaders began to realize that, if they did nothing, there was a real danger of their native language dying out. 

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“Our language is sacred,” said Howard Paden, executive director of the Cherokee Language Department for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. “God made that, and we can have the biggest buildings, the biggest casinos, but if we don’t have the very essence of who we are — when we speak in that form, there’s words that English doesn’t have. There’s concepts that English doesn’t have.”

Paden wasn’t the only person who attended the ceremony from one of the other two Cherokee tribes. United Band of Keetoowah Indians Chief Joe Bunch spoke to the crowd as well, and a delegation from the Cherokee Nation sat in the audience. 

“As a group of tribes, we have to continue to make sure that we’re heard,” said EBCI Chief Michell Hicks.

Like many people his age, Hicks is not a fluent speaker, something that he acknowledged in his comments.

“My dad understood. My grandma spoke, but really didn’t teach,” he said. “My generation, we lacked resources — but it’s not an excuse. I don’t have an excuse other than, I’ve got to allow for more of an effort.”

Fluent Cherokee speakers say that there’s something elemental about the language, something that conjures meaning more specifically and paints verbal pictures more intimately than English allows. In a 2018 interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Beloved Woman and first language speaker Myrtle Driver Johnson said that Cherokee is more grounded in the relationships between words and the things they describe, producing richly layered meanings and preventing insincere expression.

The new building will offer a home base for language revival, the first significant capital investment toward that goal on the Qualla Boundary since New Kituwah Academy was built in 2009. New Kituwah offers Cherokee immersion education for children ages birth through elementary school grades. Recognizing that children learning Cherokee at school often come home to parents who can’t interact in the language, the tribe has also launched an adult language learning program in which participants earn a paycheck — for the duration of the program, learning the language is their full-time job. 

news Cherokee speakers building scissors

Elder and first language speaker Marie Junaluska (left) claps as Cherokee Speakers Council Chairman Roger Smoker, also an elder and first language speaker, hands back the scissors they used for the ribbon-cutting. Holly Kays photo

The Cherokee Speakers Place offers more than 8,000 square feet of space for fluent speakers and language learners to gather, practice the language and preserve what they know. It includes a spacious lobby and large meeting room with a kitchen, offices, classrooms, a library, a recording room and a patio peppered with tables and chairs.

“I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes today, but I appreciate the chance to try, speak and learn,” said Miss Cherokee 2023-24 Scarlett “Gigage” Guy, who emceed the event completely in Cherokee.

Tribal leaders hope that the new building will facilitate more such “mistakes” made in the honest effort to learn the Cherokee language — so that one day, its future will be safe in the minds and on the lips of the tribe’s young people.

“We can’t be scared,” Hicks said. “We have to walk across and figure out how we do it, and how we do it better.”

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