Report shows Duke considered impact on Kituwah

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the company’s proposed substation, Duke Energy representatives claimed they were unaware of the project’s potential impact on the Cherokee’s most valued site.

But Russ Townsend, historic preservation officer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, isn’t so sure. Townsend received an archeological report that Duke conducted on the site of the substation in 2008.

“It basically clarified that Duke did know all of these things they were saying they weren’t aware of,” Townsend said. “That was disappointing. They’re not required by law to consult with me, but they’ve always said they wanted to be a good neighbor.”

Archeologically, the substation project’s interference with Kituwah presents an interesting dilemma.

The EBCI bought 309 acres around the mound site in 1996, and an archeological survey the following year discovered a 65-acre village site that confirmed a long term of settlement. The mound site and the surrounding village are listed separately on the federal register of historic places.

The mound, 170 feet in diameter and five feet tall, formed the base for the council house where the Cherokee conducted some of their most sacred ceremonies.

The Duke substation project is taking place on a surrounding hillside that is not owned by the tribe. Duke considers the project an upgrade of an existing line, and therefore is not bound to a public vetting process that would involve consulting with state historic preservation officials. The substation site covers a 300 by 300 foot square, and its structures will be 40-feet high.

But the Cherokee have argued the project directly threatens the integrity of the Kituwah site.

Tom Belt, who teaches Cherokee language and culture at Western Carolina University, explained that the concept of the Kituwah mothertown for the Cherokee would encompass the entire area within a day’s walk of the council house. Belt said the actual valley and its mountains play crucial roles in spiritual ceremonies held on the solstices and in the cosmology that support the tribe’s clan structure.

“On those days if you stand at the mound where the council house was, the very place the light hits first is on the seven peaks on that mountain where the substation will be built,” Belt said.

Townsend said the archeological report filed by Duke confirmed there were 15 important sites within a mile of the substation project, and two nationally registered sites within a half mile. Townsend said there are likely no artifacts left in the ground in the area, but the report, conducted by a private firm, leaves little doubt about its archeological significance.

“It’s my professional opinion that this is really a true adverse impact to Kituwah,” Townsend said. “It’s not just a site on a hill we don’t want developed.”

Duke Energy president agrees to meet with Cherokee chief

A disagreement over Duke Energy’s placement of a power substation near Cherokee’s most significant cultural site has instigated a meeting between the top leaders of the tribe and the company.

Principal Chief Michell Hicks, the tribal council, and the attorney general of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are set to meet with Duke Energy Carolinas President James Rogers behind closed doors on Wednesday (Feb. 17) to discuss the issue.

Hicks said he wanted to wait until after the meeting to discuss whether negotiations would involve visual mitigation of the substation or moving the project entirely.

“We want the land protected, and we want the viewshed protected,” Hicks said. “I don’t know where they’re at. Until I sit down with the president and hear where they’re coming from, I don’t want to comment on that.”

The ECBI owns a 309-acre Kituwah mound site, which was historically the tribe’s spiritual and political center. But it does not own the surrounding hillsides where the substation is slated to go.

In November, Duke began bulldozing part of a mountainside tract near the Hyatt Creek/Ela exit off the Smoky Mountain Expressway between Cherokee and Bryson City to prepare for construction of the substation. The mountainside is considered by the Cherokee to be a part of the greater Kituwah mothertown. Should the project move forward, it would mar a viewshed integral to the tribe’s cultural identity.

The EBCI’s tribal council passed a resolution authorizing Principal Chief Michell Hicks to seek outside legal counsel to attempt to prevent Duke from moving forward with the substation and a transmission line expansion near the Swain County site during its meeting on Feb. 4.

Since then, work at the site has continued. Some 15 members of the tribe traveled to the Swain County commissioners meeting last week in order to ask the board to join with the tribe in opposing the Duke project. The commissioners took no formal action.

“We don’t have any ordinance or regulatory authority to cover that,” said Chairman Glenn Jones. “If the Cherokee want to bring a lawsuit or whatever, we told them we would probably be willing to put our name to it.”

Representatives from Duke have said the substation and line upgrade was intended to serve the expanding demand for energy created by the growth of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Company spokesperson Paige Layne cited a lack of communication over the issue as the point of tension.

“This was not something we initiated to cause harm,” Layne said. “Our goal was to provide energy to our consumer base. I guess the next step is to make sure we’re doing that with the utmost respect to the tribe’s culture.”

Wednesday’s meeting could clear the air, but it could also solidify differences between the tribe and the utility company.

Duke has already expressed its intent to resolve the issue through a plan to mitigate the visual impact of the substation on the mountainside. But the tribal council’s resolution cleared the way for a legal battle that could play out in the form of hearings before the North Carolina Utility Commission.

What is Kituwah?

Kituwah is a concept much larger than the mound site proper, which is recorded with the state register of historic places. The name signifies the mothertown of the Cherokee, a kind of original community with which all Cherokees identify.

“The boundaries of Kituwah aren’t confined to the area. It’s intrinsic to the heart and soul of the Cherokee people,” said Tom Belt, a professor of Cherokee Language and Culture at Western Carolina University.

Belt explained Cherokees as far west as Memphis would have identified themselves as Kituwah during the 1600s.

But the tribe lost control of the Kituwah village in the years preceding their forced removal from their ancestral land in Western North Carolina.

During most of the last century and a half, the land has been under agricultural cultivation as part of a tract called Ferguson’s Field.

The Eastern Band bought 309 acres around the mound site in 1996, and an archeological survey the following year discovered a 65-acre village site that confirmed the long term of settlement.

The mound, 170 feet in diameter and five feet tall, formed the base for the council house where the Cherokee conducted some of their most sacred ceremonies.

Belt explained that the concept of the Kituwah mothertown for the Cherokee would encompass the entire area within a day’s walk of the council house. But Belt said the actual valley and its mountains play crucial roles in spiritual ceremonies held on the solstices and in the cosmology that support the tribe’s clan structure.

“On those days if you stand at the mound where the council house was, the very place the light hits first is on the seven peaks on that mountain where the substation will be built,” Belt said.

Duke project threatens sacred character of Kituwah site

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians may pursue legal action against Duke Energy after learning about the utility company’s plans to put an electric substation near Kituwah mound, the tribe’s most sacred site.

On Friday the EBCI’s tribal council passed a resolution authorizing Principal Chief Michell Hicks to seek outside legal counsel to attempt to prevent Duke from moving forward with the substation and a transmission line expansion near the Swain County site.

“I’m very disappointed with the lack of contact with Duke on such a large facility being built near our most important site,” Hicks said.

Hicks said he learned about the estimated $79 million project –– which he termed a “desecration”–– in late December and voiced his concerns to Duke’s regional manager, Fred Alexander. The ensuing discussions were limited, Hicks said.

In November, Duke began bulldozing part of a mountainside tract near the Hyatt Creek/Ela exit off the Smoky Mountain Expressway between Cherokee and Bryson City to prepare for construction of the substation. The mountainside is considered by the Cherokee to be a part of the greater Kituwah mothertown, which was once the tribe’s spiritual and political center. Should the project move forward, it would mar a viewshed integral to the tribe’s cultural identity.

Duke Spokesperson Paige Layne said the company was surprised about the concerns over the substation, which she said is being constructed in part to service Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“This was not something we initiated to cause harm,” Layne said. “Our goal was to provide energy to our consumer base. I guess the next step is to make sure we’re doing that with the utmost respect to the tribe’s culture.”

Layne said Duke Energy’s president, James Rogers, has scheduled a meeting on Feb. 22 to visit the site and to discuss the matter with Hicks.


Poor communication

The controversy over the construction of the substation emerged when the tribe’s administrators became aware of the scope of the project in late December. Duke Energy purchased the mountainside site in 2008 and a report of the Edison Electric Institute issued in January of the same year identified the Hyatt Creek Substation project as part of a larger $79 million transmission line upgrade that would nearly triple the voltage capacity on 17.5 miles of transmission line from 66 kV to 161kV.

When bulldozing work began late last year as part of the site preparation work, some of the tribe’s employees inquired about the project. The tribe’s legal office contacted the North Carolina Utilities Commission to find out what was going on.

Thomas McLawhorn, spokesperson for public staff at the commission, explained that Duke determined they did not need to file an application for the project.

“Duke has not filed an application, and I don’t believe they intend to,” McLawhorn said.

McLawhorn explained that Duke’s staff had determined that the upgrade project did not require an application under general statute 62.101, which governs the construction of transmission lines.

According to Hannah Smith, an attorney for the tribe, utility companies are required by the statute to notify a number of state agencies and file an application whenever lines of 161kV or more are involved.

McLawhorn said Duke made the determination that, as an upgrade, the project did not require an application, and therefore did not have to specify why the project was necessary.

McLawhorn did say that the North Carolina Utility Commission could impose an injunction on the project in response to an official complaint on behalf of the tribe.

“The commissioners could instruct Duke to cease construction of the facility until the commission has had time to investigate the issue and form an opinion,” McLawhorn said.

McLawhorn said Duke staff members informed him that the upgrade was driven by the need to provide more power to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Layne confirmed providing power for the casino and hotel expansion is the intent of the project.

“The area up there is growing and when we look specifically at the expansion of the hotel and casino, we need to bring in more service to the area,” Layne said.

Layne said Duke was looking at how they could have communicated with the tribe better.

“We have to better understand where in our process we could have taken more steps,” Layne said. “To us it was routine, and when we learned about the visual impairment, it was not routine.”


Is mitigation enough?

Last week the tribal council met to consider a resolution authorizing the EBCI attorney general’s office to pursue a course to stop the project.

Tom Belt, a professor of Cherokee Language and Culture at Western Carolina University, said Duke’s construction of the substation near Kituwah was tantamount to putting a McDonald’s sign near the pulpit of a church. Belt urged the tribal council to do whatever it could to protect the site.

“The Kituwah site is one of the most sacred things we have and I would submit that it may have been part of the reason so many of your forbears stayed here in 1838,” Belt told the tribal council.

Tribal council member Teresa McCoy put the issue in perspective for her colleagues.

“I like power, but this is bigger than power,” McCoy said.

According to Layne, Duke has already offered to mitigate the impact of the substation on the viewshed by using non-reflective steel, replanting the area with native plants, and using stone-colored material for retaining walls.

Natalie Smith, a tribal member who owns Tribal Grounds Coffee Shop in Cherokee, asked the tribal council to stand up to Duke and get the project moved.

“I don’t think we should compromise at all with Duke,” Smith said. “I think they’re counting on us not to know the law and I think they’re counting on their Fortune 500 lawyers beating us.”

Hicks seemed to share that sentiment during the meeting.

“The bottom line is it’s a disrespect to our tribe and a disrespect to the people of Swain County,” Hicks said.

Russ Townsend, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, believes Duke should have done more to communicate its plans.

“We’re constantly gathering data that shows Duke has had more opportunities to share more information with us,” Townsend said.

Townsend urged the council to exhaust its resources in defending the site.

“This is our most important site. We’re only ever going to have one Kituwah,” Townsend said. “I don’t think there’s any resource we shouldn’t expend to make Duke realize the importance of the site.”

The meeting between Hicks and Rogers on Feb. 22 could determine whether the state’s largest power company and one of the country’s most wealthy tribes will face off in court over the issue.

The United Keetoowah Band of Oklahoma released a statement denouncing Duke’s failure to communicate with all of the Cherokee bands that hold a stake in the cultural legacy of Kituwah.

EBCI council member Perry Shell said all Cherokees should band together to protect their mothertown.

“United we stand a better chance of fighting this,” Shell said.

Historic Cherokee letterpress carries exciting potential for new art

The newest addition to Southwestern Community College’s Oconaluftee Institute of Cultural Arts holds a piece of Cherokee history. OICA will soon obtain a letterpress that will be used to print books in the Cherokee syllabary.

“We are bringing back the Cherokee history in true art form,” said Luzene Hill, OICA progam outreach coordinator.

Through a $68,846 grant from Cherokee Preservation Foundation and a $47,792 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, OICA will purchase a metal press and develop a printmaking studio at its facilities on Bingo Loop Road in Cherokee.

Years ago, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians published a newspaper called Tsa la gi Tsu lehisanunhi, or the Cherokee Phoenix. This first Native American newspaper was printed on a hot-type letterpress in which each word is put together by hand, combining individual metal letters or characters.

“It opens up a whole new craft of book art for us, including printmaking, hand-papermaking and hand-bookbinding,” said Hill. “For our students, book art will blend fine arts with crafts.”

After 12 years, Sequoyah finished developing the Cherokee syllabary in 1821. Each character represents a syllable, instead of one sound, thus the name syllabary.

As in the Phoenix newspaper, the power of the Cherokee language rises through the printed word on the page, transforming from thoughts to art, Hill explained.

“You already feel the power of words but capturing them in a book through individual characters you’ve laid out in hot type and on paper you’ve made from linen or hemp fiber really helps you feel them in an art form, too,” said Hill.

As students learn to produce first the paper and then the books, they will also learn skills such as precision, technique, spacing and artistic layout composition, said Hill, who is consulting with noted instructor Frank Brannon.

Brannon, who runs his own letterpress studio, SpeakEasy Press, in Dillsboro, earned his master of fine arts in Book Arts at the University of Alabama and has recently taught Letterpress at the Penland School of Crafts and Papermaking and Printing at the John C. Campbell Folk School.

“One of Frank’s specialties is the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper,” said Hill. “He has explored and published copies from the original hand impressions of type from the Phoenix, found in a 1954 excavation of the New Echota historic site. He hand printed and hand bound the publications for exhibition.”

“The Phoenix was a bilingual weekly newspaper printed in parallel columns in Cherokee and English and one of its biggest subscribers was the British Library,” said Brannon, who also teaches at Book Works in Asheville.

The first paper that the Phoenix was printed on came from Knoxville by wagon and it took two weeks to arrive, according to Brannon. The last issue was published in 1834, shortly before the Cherokee removal to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

“Students will learn the Cherokee history right along with the history of the letterpress,” said Hill.

The Cherokee language will also be incorporated into the course since the books can be published in the Cherokee syllabary, she added.

For more information contact Hill at 828.497.3945.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino building for big future

With the rest of the region’s construction economy at a standstill, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino is in the midst of a massive expansion project employing nearly 1,000 workers.

“We’re kind of creating our own gravity in terms of labor and resources,” said Erik Sneed, project manager for the casino expansion.

The expansion of the casino and hotel began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. The $600 million project will dramatically increase the casino’s gaming capacity and transform the hotel into one of the largest and finest in the country.

Sneed said Harrah’s has designed its gaming expansion to be flexible enough to be easily adapted if the casino reaches an agreement with the state of North Carolina to bring live dealers to the gambling floor. The casino will go from 3,400 games to 4,700 — 160 of the new additions will be table-based.

In May, the first phase of the bigger gaming floor will come on line, claiming the former entertainment pavilion and performance stage. The new casino area, unveiled with an earth/water-theme, will house 750 additional games and a brand new full-service bar in a non-smoking environment.

In June, another phase of the casino’s expansion will bring an additional 1,000 games on line.

Another characteristic of the new gaming marketplace is adapting to the Asian gambling profile. Feeding off its success at other casinos with Asian gamblers, Harrah’s will add an Asian gaming room featuring Pai Gow poker, baccarat and a nearby traditional noodle bar.

The casino’s expansion reflects the newest trends in the gaming industry. The whir of the slots, the clinking of the coins, and the neon lights have given way to interactive LED lighting displays and electronic debit swipe cards.

The new casino addition is designed as an open, airy environment that draws the outside in by incorporating natural light.

“We’ve really tried to embrace the outdoors and connect well with the creek and the outside surroundings by using lots of glass,” Sneed said.

A newly landscaped green space around Soco Creek, featuring native river cane and reeds, will integrate the casino and hotel into a park-like campus. When the façade of the hotel is complete, the green roof of its porte cochere will be an architectural centerpiece.

The hotel expansion will crown the 37-acre casino complex with a dramatic 21-story high rise — the third and biggest hotel tower yet — featuring glassed-in luxury suites up to 2,000 square feet in size.

The casino’s expansion is a sign of ambition, but it’s also a response to a practical reality. Last year, Harrah’s Cherokee purchased over 77,000 rooms off-campus for casino guests, as their on-site hotel accommodations were consistently maxed out. The expansion will nearly double the hotel’s room capacity from 532 rooms to 1,001 rooms with 107 suites.

New book takes closer look at baskets and their makers

Anna Fariello believes that artifacts — somewhat like windows — can act as passageways to a culture’s soul.

“Material culture can be a window onto the changes that occur in social and cultural history,” said Fariello, an associate professor and chief architect of the Craft Revival Project at Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.

An author, editor and former research fellow at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Fariello most recently turned her attention to Cherokee basketry, a thousands-year-old tradition, passed from mother to daughter, that she believes is integral to Cherokee culture.

Fariello’s new book, titled Cherokee Basketry: From the Hands of our Elders, studies Cherokee baskets and basket-makers who lived during the first half of the 20th century.

The project reinforced Fariello’s understanding that for Cherokee people, “the making of things is significant to their culture and their identity,” a concept foreign to many people in contemporary, mainstream culture, she said. The Cherokees’ use of natural resources as basket materials gave Fariello an appreciation of the environmental sustainability and ecological balance also inherent in the culture.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians played a significant role in the craft revival, a regional movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that produced a wealth of objects, identified traditional skills, and revitalized handwork production in Western North Carolina.

With a grant from the State Library of North Carolina, Fariello originally set out to expand the information available on the project’s site, which chronicles the movement and its impact on Western North Carolina through text and images.

Fariello worked with the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee with the purpose of making their collections available online.

A grant of $47,000 from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation added a second element to the project: to research and more fully document basketry in those collections.

While the project did not start out as a book, Fariello said it seemed the logical conclusion. “The book takes scattered elements and arranges them for a more complete picture,” she said.

Cherokee Basketry examines specifics about basket-makers themselves, how baskets were made, and what they were used for. Archival photographs illustrate “Cherokee Basketry,” published by The History Press of Charleston, S.C.

“I hope that this book has a broad audience,” Fariello said. “I think it can serve as a classroom text for Cherokee studies or the visual arts, and I also think it will have a broad public appeal for anyone interested in regional culture, especially the influence of the Cherokees on Western North Carolina.”

Fariello presented books to Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Chief Michell Hicks and the Tribal Council. Fariello also gave 200 copies of the book to Cherokee School Superintendent Joyce Dugan for teachers to use in the Eastern Band’s new K-12 school.

The project was a great service to the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, whose permanent collection has more than 100 baskets and continues to grow.

“Before the archive organization, the only recorded information in our permanent collection was a handwritten line about each item,” said Vicki Cruz, manager of the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual.

Now the co-op’s archives are digitized and include contemporary photos, as well as information about dimensions, materials and patterns, and the artists themselves.

Fariello also worked with co-op employees on the care and display of the baskets, and about recordkeeping when a new piece enters the collection.

Cruz said she eventually plans to use her new knowledge to document the work of contemporary basket-makers. “The daughters of basket-makers Agnes Welch and Eva Wolfe, they’re basket-makers too, and now their daughters are starting to weave,” she said.

The basketry book is the first in the “From the Hands of our Elders” series, a three-year project to document Cherokee arts.

The next book, funded with $87,770 from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, will focus on Cherokee potters and pottery during the first part of the 20th century. A book on Cherokee woodcarving and mask making is scheduled to follow.

For more information about the “From the Hands of our Elders” series or the Craft Revival Web site, contact Fariello at 828.227.2499 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tribal casino gets OK for gaming floor alcohol

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino may soon serve alcohol on the gaming floor, after receiving an unofficial go-ahead from a state attorney.

The casino has already been offering customers beer, wine and mixed drinks at restaurants and lounges in its adjacent hotel. Bringing alcohol to the floor, though, will be the bigger moneymaker for the casino.

Harrah’s had prohibited players from downing alcoholic drinks on the gaming floor due to uncertainty about a state law that bans gambling at businesses that serve alcohol.

“We had to be clear on the law,” said Bob Blankenship, chairman of the tribe’s Alcoholic Beverage Control commission.

But according to John Aldridge, special deputy attorney general, Harrah’s would not violate any law by serving alcohol on the casino floor.

In a letter to the state ABC commission, Aldridge wrote that the state law only impacts businesses that allow illegal gambling.

Since an agreement with both the state and federal government allows gambling at Harrah’s in Cherokee, the law would not be applicable.

According to Blankenship, all that’s left in the process is the tribal council’s formal approval. Tribe members approved the sale of alcohol on casino premises, but nowhere else in Cherokee, over the summer.

It will take about a week for alcohol to hit the casino floor after the tribal council passes the measure, Blankenship said.

Between language and culture

Native American languages are unique. They came into being and evolved without the influence of writing. For scholars like Heidi Altman, a professor of linguistic sociology, that makes them fascinating.

“The thing I’m interested in is how people organize knowledge through language,” Altman said.

One of the most difficult aspects in the effort to preserve the Cherokee language and culture is how to convey the Cherokee worldview to a generation of speakers that live predominantly in an English-speaking world.

Altman said the nuances of the Cherokee language are often conveyed through the use of metaphor and context.

“When you have speakers together who are 50 and older, they’re able to talk in such a way that the language is metaphorical. It’s contextual, it’s funny, and it really encapsulates the Cherokee worldview,” Altman said. “It’s really different from how an English speaker thinks about how things work.”

Garfield Long Jr. has been the ECBI tribal linguist since 1997. One of the youngest native speakers of the Cherokee language at 42, Long struggles with how to preserve the meaning of the language as it is used by the elders.

Long believes there is no line separating language from thought or thought from experience. The oldest generation of Cherokee speakers grew up in a rural world, immersed not only in their language but also in natural surroundings.

“I think the experience outweighs the knowledge of the language,” Long said. “If you don’t go out in the woods and see the plants for yourself, you might know how to pronounce the word but you can’t go out there and find them.”

Long grew up in a Cherokee speaking household but he attended high school in Sylva. In some ways, he represents the boundary between two generations of Cherokee speakers.

“Growing up I never thought or dreamed that I would be in the position I’m in now, doing translation,” Long said. “Because in high school my world was mostly in English. It was only coming back after school that I began to realize how much I’d forgotten.”

Heavily influenced by his father and grandfather, Long considers himself a Cherokee thinker, but he concedes there is tension for anyone who lives in both worlds.

“For me I kind of think in Cherokee but again it just depends on the context of the conversation,” Long said.

In the Cherokee language the same noun will be pronounced differently depending on whether an object is a solid, a liquid, rigid or flexible. The pronunciation change involves subtle changes in tone and accent. Long said those subtle differences offer opportunities for humor, in some cases, and confusion in others.

“There was one word I was working with today and it meant ‘I will be there immediately’ but if I change one sound it meant ‘something to wipe with,’” Long said.

Long’s example may be funny but it also represents the knife’s edge facing Cherokee thought. Whether or not the younger generation can think in Cherokee may come down to how well they understand how to use their language to mediate their own experiences.

Gil Jackson, administrator at the Cherokee Language Academy, said the difference between thinking in English and thinking in Cherokee is most evident with higher order words, like love.

“The word love in our language is different. I could never describe it,” Jackson said. “It would take me half a book and I still couldn’t explain it.”

To that end, Jackson is encouraged by the way his young language immersion students express themselves.

“They run around now and tell each other ‘I love you’ in Cherokee,” Jackson said.

Effort to revive language calls Cherokee old and young

Outside the annual Thanksgiving potluck dinner in the isolated Snowbird community, a remote corner of Graham County where the Cherokee language has deep roots, the parking lot is jammed full. It’s a dark night. The children play tag and the grown-ups stand in groups of two and three smoking.

Inside the brightly lit gym, hundreds of people sit at long folding tables to share turkey, traditional bean dishes, pies, sweet potatoes. There is a raffle drawing.

The food is eaten, the tables taken away, and Garfield Long Jr., tribal linguist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, sits with his granduncle Abel Catholster, watching young men play basketball.

Catholster, a tribal elder who doesn’t speak in English comfortably, is asked whether he thinks the Cherokee language will die. Long translates his answer.

“A long time ago a lot of the elders use to say this will become an English world. White. Like this,” Catholster said, nodding towards the gym.

“I think what he means is that everybody’s talking in English,” Long said.

America’s first languages are dying. Across the country, indigenous communities are coming face to face with the reality that their fluent speakers are growing old and their younger generations are not only speaking but also thinking in English.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is confronting the challenge head-on with a tribally-funded language immersion academy where young children learn to speak Cherokee. But the people responsible for creating a new generation of Cherokee speakers in Western North Carolina are aware of a sobering fact –– there is no easy way to bring a language back to life.

In 2006, only about 300 people within the Qualla Boundary spoke Cherokee as their first language, and that number has grown smaller with each passing month.

The numbers point to one conclusion. The tribe needs to produce fluent speakers faster than it loses them.

Dr. Heidi Altman, an associate professor of linguistic anthropology at Georgia Southern University, acts as a consultant with the ECBI in their effort to develop a plan to revitalize the Cherokee language in their community. Altman said the Cherokee are not the only tribe facing the extinction of their language.

“It’s a complex thing. All the estimates from people are that certainly by the end of this century, there may not be any native languages spoken the way they used to be,” said Altman. “The lifespan of the language is only equivalent to the lifespan of the speakers. This is the critical moment. If it doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen.”

Renissa Walker –– director of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program –– is part of a young group of tribal leaders in Principal Chief Michell Hicks’ administration charged with bringing back the language.

Walker didn’t learn to speak Cherokee as a child. For her, the effort is about preserving a distinct identity amid the American monoculture.

“The creator could have made you any type of person but he made you Cherokee,” Walker said. “We are aware of the value of the language, and we are aware that the language and the culture are in a fragile state.”

The spearhead of the tribe’s efforts is the new immersion language academy, which cost nearly $7 million and opened in September. The academy has 30 students between kindergarten and second grade and the goal is for them to be bilingual when they leave the school after fifth grade. The tribe also operates Cherokee language daycare for infants and toddlers.

While teaching the young people to speak is crucial to the survival of the Cherokee language, a parallel effort is under way, one that may ultimately prove more vital to preserving Cherokee thought patterns and ideals.

Walker’s mother, Myrtle Driver, is part of a group of elders on the reservation who speak Cherokee as their first language. Every month, the fluent speakers and tribal elders hold a gathering. These Cherokee Speakers Gatherings have brought the tribe’s older generation back to the fore of preserving culture and created a bridge that spans across generations and cultural experiences.

“When their heroes are Beyonce and Jay-Z, how can you say the culture is strong?” Walker said. “It’s competing with the society outside and it’s losing. If we held inside the values that our language holds we wouldn’t let the outside society affect us that way.”

For the first time in four decades some of the tribe’s fluent speakers are children, but they are too young to feel the gravity of what they are doing.


The importance of immersion

For 30 years the ECBI have undertaken various efforts to maintain the Cherokee language, but they have mostly amounted to not enough of a good thing. From mandatory high school classes that taught basic words and phrases to a variety of elementary pullout programs that offered grammar lessons, the students have been made aware of the cultural importance of the language, but they haven’t gotten any better at speaking it.

For Walker, that’s not good enough.

“Fluency to us means that you are a conversational speaker. The efforts have done a lot to preserve our heritage, but they haven’t really contributed to the number of fluent speakers on the reservation,” Walker said.

The pattern changed in 2005 with a $1 million grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation that allowed the tribe to take an inventory of its Cherokee speakers. After conducting a random sample survey of tribal members over the age of 10, the study showed that there were only 420 fluent speakers of the Cherokee language left in the Qualla Boundary, less than 7 percent of the local population.

Even more dire, less than 1 percent of that number represented adults of childbearing age.

Walker said the tribe ultimately used a word-of-mouth effort to find out if the study’s numbers were accurate. In the end, it was determined there were even fewer fluent speakers than first thought. In 2006 the number was closer to 300. Meanwhile the ECBI loses an average of three speakers per month and the average age of the speaking population is 53.

Walker said that trend is only getting more dramatic with time, threatening the preservation of not just the words of the Cherokee language but the thought patterns behind them.

“We’re going to see that number accelerate,” Walker said. “There’s features of the language that are being lost because the young speakers don’t use the language in the same way.”

Altman said the goal of the effort is to produce “stabile bilingualism” in the younger generation, something that has been achieved through similar efforts in New Zealand’s Maori community and in Hawaii. The ECBI, she said, are in a unique position because the tribe has taken ownership of the language preservation effort.

“The thing that works differently with the Cherokee is the language immersion program is a tribal program as opposed to a grassroots program, which brings its own benefits and its own challenges,” said Altman.

Gil Jackson, administrator at the Cherokee Language Academy, thinks the immersion program can change the paradigm.

“We’ve had these little ones since they were babies,” Jackson said. “We’re giving them two worlds at the same time and they’re getting it. We don’t just want to teach the language. We want to teach them to be Kituwah people as they once were.”

Teaching Cherokee in the immersion program is more difficult than simply speaking the language. Altman said efforts in other communities have been plagued by poorly trained teachers who will revert to English if a child becomes upset. The immersion teaching method is predicated on learners making the connection between a word and an idea in the same language.

“You have to really understand why it works and how it works, because the brain needs to be trained to learn the pathway,” Altman said.

According to Jackson, the young people who come through the immersion program and become fluent speakers will be able to expand their vocabularies as they get older, something second language learners in Walker’s generation can’t really do.

The distinction comes down to the way speakers acquire language, how they process information.

“If they’re a fluent speaker and their [Cherokee] vocabulary is limited, they’ll probably get it, but if they are a second language learner, probably not,” said Jackson.

Walker doesn’t want people to have any illusions about where the tribe stands with regards to its language.

“The effort to become conversationally fluent is significant,” Walker said. “People have a hard time with this, but there are parents out there who think their children are fluent and they’re not.”

And while the immersion program has come a long way since its inception in 2004, the children can’t grow up fast enough to replace the elder speakers who are dying.

“Immersion is only going to be good for so long, because we have a declining pool of speakers,” Walker said.

Walker credits her mother with coming up with a way to get the elders back involved in the discussion.

“She just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea just to get the fluent speakers together to visit,’” Walker said. “It grew from that.”


Gathering the elders

Native languages are disappearing across the country in part because government-sponsored boarding schools eradicated a generation of speakers.

Children who grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s were sent to “Indian” boarding schools where they were treated harshly and forbidden to speak their own language under the guiding philosophy that they had to assimilate into the dominant culture to survive.

The boarding school programs have been widely linked to post traumatic stress disorder and other emotional traumas that inhibited language retention even in children who spoke a native language first. But the particular history of the Kituwah, as the eastern Cherokee call themselves, lent itself to hanging on fiercely to their identity.

Walker’s mother, Myrtle Driver, grew up speaking Cherokee in the Big Cove community.

“That’s all that was spoken in my house because I was raised by my grandparents,” Driver said. “I was not allowed to speak English when I was home from school.”

Driver doesn’t remember being discouraged from speaking Cherokee during her elementary school years.

“We would talk Cherokee outside at recess and in the halls and no one ever punished us,” Driver said.

She attended schools in Cherokee and then went on to Haskell Indian School in Kansas, one of the most famous of the government-run boarding schools.

Driver said she never lost the desire to hang on to her language and culture.

“What I wanted to hold onto was my language and my traditions because that made me Kituwah,” Driver said. “Fortunately there were Oklahoma Cherokee there and I had a cousin there also and we spoke the same dialect.”

Driver spent more than 20 years away from Cherokee. When she came back, she got active in preserving the culture by teaching dancing to young people and by acting as an ambassador of Cherokee traditions.

She believes her greatest contribution to the preservation of Cherokee culture may have been the result of a casual conversation between her and Gil Jackson, administrator at the Cherokee Language Academy, which ultimately led to the creation of both the Cherokee Speakers Gatherings and the Cherokee Language Consortium.

“The idea [for the Speakers Gathering] just came in a conversation,” said Driver. “We ought to get the people together and feed them. It was probably the best thought Gil and I will have in our lifetimes. It just grew from there. That’s how the consortium came about.”

Driver and Jackson put out the word to fluent Cherokee speakers in the community and they began to gather together once a month over food to exchange stories and speak Cherokee.

According to Altman, the gatherings gave the language its social context back.

“A lot of the speakers had gotten to the point where they didn’t speak the language publicly anymore,” Altman said. “Once it’s only spoken in the home and there’s no socially viable way to speak it, a language is really on its way out.”

Jackson said the gatherings helped people remember old words that had disappeared.

“What happens at the speakers gathering often times someone will come in with an old word that we may have forgotten and that’s what happens when you bring in strong speakers,” Jackson said.

As the gatherings grew, they became a vehicle for the elders to talk about their culture, but they also served a practical purpose.


When one word tells a story

The language academy often works with children’s books that have been written in English. Translating them into Cherokee is tricky, particularly with modern words.

The speakers gathering became an impromptu method for translating.

“Television box –– there is no Cherokee word,” Driver said. “What is the best way to describe it? It makes things appear. If you know how it works or what it is then you can think about it in Cherokee and you’ve got your word.”

According to Jackson, older Cherokee speakers often have one word for something that younger speakers have to explain in a roundabout way. For instance, there is a single word in Cherokee to say ‘My feet are cold.’

“The old speakers don’t have to describe it, they have a word,” Jackson said.

The Speakers Gatherings now draw around 30 people each month, and they have outgrown the expectations of their organizers.

“The beauty of it is these words will make us think of a story and we’ll share that story,” Driver said. “There’s not only two lessons then, there’s three lessons because of the tradition in the story. We’re not just preserving the language, we’re preserving the traditions.”

Another benefit of the Speakers Gatherings has been the creation of a forum for discussion about where the language has come from and where it is going.

To that end, the organizers began inviting outside speakers to come in and talk about efforts to revive native languages in other communities.

One of the earliest speakers came from Oklahoma Cherokee country. Altman said the event created a connection with a lasting impact.

“Part of what’s happened is there were sort of parallel tracks going on between the people in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band,” Altman said. “It was interesting because some of the people were of the impression that the dialects were far apart but once they came together, they realized they weren’t.”

The increased dialogue between the Oklahoma Cherokee population and members of the ECBI, led to the creation of the Cherokee Language Consortium, a semi-formalized language workshop that takes place twice a year and includes native speakers from the ECBI, the United Cherokee Tribe, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee.

Altman said that Tom Belt, an Oklahoman who teaches Cherokee at Western Carolina University, has been a bridge between the two groups.

The consortium works on creating Cherokee words for English words like cell phone, plastic, CD, and computer, which translates as “electric brain.”

While the translations have a practical goal–– to arm the younger generation with the words they need–– they are also the front line of the confrontation between English and Cherokee cultural thought patterns.


Half empty or half full?

For Cherokee speakers of Abel Catholster’s generation –– men and women who grew up with a totally Cherokee worldview –– the loss of the language is a bitter pill to swallow, and it is more or less something that has already happened.

Catholster was raised in the Wolf Creek community above Blue Wing in the late 1920s. He says he is 84.

“He may be older than that, cause we’re not really sure when he was born,” said Garfield Long, his grandnephew and the ECBI’s linguist.

According to Long, Catholster was repeatedly rounded up and brought down the mountain to attend school only to escape at his earliest convenience. He later worked as a laborer to build the road over Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountain National Park.

Catholster grew up geographically and culturally isolated, and as a result his world was 100 percent Cherokee. These days, Cherokee children grow up in an English-speaking world and the evolution of media has meant that in most cases Beyonce and Jay-Z are as accessible to them as their grandparents.

Long believes the new generation of speakers needs the elders to help them learn the meaning behind what they say, and he’s not sure if there’s time enough to make it happen.

“As far as language goes we have a chance of survival but I feel it’s going to be limited because the speakers we do have around may not be willing to share,” Long said.

Long doesn’t believe the culture can survive without the language.

“Personally I think you have to have the language. It doesn’t matter what tribe you’re from,” Long said. “You can tell me you’re Cherokee and you are, but if you don’t know the language you don’t know what makes us unique.”

If there is a hope, Long believes it lies in harnessing the energy of the elders.

“I think as far as the speakers go it helps maintain the bond we have because we all have something in common, we’re striving for the same result,” Long said. “It was only when the speakers gathering got started that some of the older speakers realized it was important to preserve the language.”

For Long, the knowledge of the elders is something that transcends language, and even in his own family he has felt the loss.

“They share some things that would almost be considered mythology in our context but to us they are real,” Long said. “At our family functions now, the non-speakers outnumber the Cherokee speakers.”

In contrast to Catholster and Long, who have seen the declining strength of the language over their lifetimes, Altman has witnessed the growth of the preservation effort as an outsider. Viewing the Eastern Cherokee’s situation in the context of similar movements around the country, she is encouraged by how far things have come.

“When I first came up there about 10 years ago you almost never heard the language in public and there wasn’t a lot of faith that something good would happen,” Altman said.

The preservation effort has had the collateral benefit of bringing a new group of actors into the effort –– people Altman says have “passive competence.”

“They’re coming out for sure. Ten years ago this never would have happened,” said Altman. “Now there are little kids who are speaking the language and that has served as a catalyst.”

Altman believes the community may have more resources than it knows, because people continue to step forward to offer help.

“Seeing the positive energy around this has drawn a lot of people out. You can look at the sad part of it, but there are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who have skills we didn’t know they had,” said Altman.

The real challenge facing the Eastern Cherokee is how to get the elder speakers and their newest fluent speakers together in such a way that the people in the middle also begin to learn the language.

“One of the things we’re really trying to do is get the kids around the older speakers as much as possible so they are learning those thought patterns,” Altman said. “You can learn Cherokee as a second language learner, but it’s very hard and it takes a lot not to be translating back and forth in your head.”

The task is a dizzying one for Walker, who is still coming to grips with the fact that her generation didn’t learn to speak when they were kids.

“Is it that we weren’t paying attention?” Walker said. “Is it that we were taking it for granted? Did anybody think about the language at that time?”

Her mother, though, has her eyes on the future.

“Today we are not in danger of losing our language,” Driver said. “It used to be the burden was put on the shoulders of the speakers. Not anymore. The burden is on the shoulders of the little ones.”

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