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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.”

Parkway right-of-way battle hard-fought through Cherokee

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians played an integral role in the creation of the Parkway. The Parkway was envisioned as a scenic motorway connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

To reach the doorstep of the Smokies, the Parkway needed right-of-way across tribal lands, but securing the route in the 1930s was not easy.

“The battle for this right-of-way started in 1935, and it did not get settled for five years,” said Ray Kinsland, the director of the Cherokee Boys Club, who shared a brief history of the Parkway’s arrival during a torch passing ceremony last week.

Many in Cherokee were resistant to the taking of tribal land to make way for the Parkway.

“A lot of people did not trust the federal government because of history,” Kinsland said. “I don’t know of any other people who have struggled for their land and freedom as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”

However, some Cherokee leaders at the time recognized the important role tourism would play in the tribe’s future.

“And for tourism, you needed roads,” Kinsland said.

A tug of war ensued within the tribe over whether to give up land for the Parkway, and if so, what the tribe was due in return. The chief and vice chief at the time were on opposing sides of the debate.

What is known is that the Cherokee Reservation is not a reservation in the true sense. The government did not grant the block of land to the Cherokee people. Instead, the Cherokee people pooled their resources and purchased the land over time and placed it in a trust, known collectively today as the Qualla Boundary.

“We had to buy this land with our own money after it had been taken away from us,” Kinsland said.

So when the Department of Interior wanted Cherokee to deed land to the federal government for the creation of the Parkway, the tribe resisted. Their land was taken once, they bought a small sliver of their once vast homeland back, and many balked at giving up even an acre.

But tribal leaders advocating for the benefits tourism would bring eventually won out.

The federal government at first wanted the tribe to give away the land for nothing, but ultimately agreed to give the tribe two other parcels known as the Boundary Tree tract and Ravensford tract in exchange for the Parkway right-of-way. The tribe signed the pact for the right-of-way in 1939.

Two years later, however, Congress decided not to give the tribe the Ravensford tract after all.

More than 60 years would pass before the tribe eventually got its hands on the long-promised Ravensford tract. The tribe negotiated a land swap in 2003 with the park service to gain title to the Ravensford tract to build a new school. The tribe bought 218 acres bordering the Parkway near Waterrock Knob and swapped it for the Ravensford tract, a flat piece of land close to town.

Tribe members were frustrated that it took three tries to buy back a tract of land that was rightfully theirs to begin with, Kinsland said.

The tract now houses the campus of a new $140 million K through 12 school, which opened this fall. Kinsland said the government going back on its word 60 years ago during the Parkway right-of-way negotiations was a blessing in disguise. Under park service control, the Ravensford tract had remained free of development. If it had belonged to the tribe all these years, “it would have been campgrounds and motels,” Kinsland said. “We wouldn’t have had anywhere to put our new school. We see it as a win-win-win.”

Cherokee immersion school aims to save language

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians praised the new Kituwah Language Academy for the cultural renaissance that’s now unfolding within its doors.

The official ribbon cutting ceremony last Wednesday (Oct. 7) for the language immersion school’s opening led many speakers to break down in tears of happiness over the historic step forward in preserving the Cherokee language, while recalling with sorrow past efforts to stamp out that cornerstone of their culture.

“Our people were made to feel ashamed of our native language,” said Dan McCoy, former chairman of the Tribal Council and a parent of an immersion student. “This is a day in history. It’s a resurrection of our language, our culture.”

McCoy characterized staff at the school as “Cherokee heroes.” The significance of reawakening the Cherokee language was not lost on anyone who attended the ceremony.

“If we lose our language, we cease to exist as Cherokee people,” said Renissa Walker, manager of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program and an immersion parent.

Walker reminded the crowd that in the past, Cherokee girls’ heads were shaved and boys were forced to wear dresses every time they spoke the language at boarding schools they were coerced into attending.

Though the stories Walker told were somber reminders of past injustices, her overall message was optimistic.

“The fire that represents our language and heritage was at risk of being extinguished, but there is hope,” said Walker.

At the ceremony, Principal Chief Michell Hicks said the tribe has made amazing progress, overcoming former government leaders’ attempts to obliterate the Cherokee language and culture.

“This is not just a beautiful facility, but we’ve completed a circle,” said Hicks. “It’s not a matter of we show them that they are wrong. It’s a matter of strength and perseverance ... I believe we have put our best foot forward.”

Hicks said he hoped he’d still be alive to see the very first children graduate from the academy.


Revitalizing the language

The language immersion program, which started in 2004, moved to the new $6.8 million building in September with more than 30 students in tow. For now, the students range from 2-year-olds to kindergarteners, but the school plans to add a new grade each year, eventually accommodating children from birth to the fifth grade.

A sense of urgency sped up the building’s creation since currently there are only 300 remaining fluent speakers, a select group that has an average age of 53. The Cherokee community here is losing about three speakers every two months.

After accounting for holidays, weekends, and other time spent outside the school, the academy estimates that children in the immersion program spend about 20 percent of their time in a Cherokee-only environment. The school wanted to move to a separate facility to avoid English interference.

Walker is not worried that the students will become any less versed in English since 80 percent of their time will still be spent in an English-speaking environment.

The goal now is to not only see the children in the language immersion program become bilingual in Cherokee and English, but also to grow up to become leaders in the tribe. Though that may be years away, the children are already making steady progress.

They are not only able to say “Hey, how are you?” or sing a song, said Gilliam Jackson, administrator for the academy. They can sit in a sandbox, chatting with each other in Cherokee, describing the sky or the clouds. Some 2-year olds are even teaching the Cherokee language to mom and dad.

“We’re very hopeful that these children are going to grow into true Cherokee people who have a sense of what it means to be Cherokee,” said Walker.

Walker added that many Cherokee kids relate more to pop culture than to their original roots.


The building itself

The 32,000-square-foot academy has 15 classrooms, four outdoor play areas, 10 offices, and a workroom where children’s books will be translated into Cherokee.

Kituwah Language Academy will also be used for speakers, gatherings, online classes, a training center for language teachers, parent language classes, cultural events, and summer language camps for youth. Construction on the building began in October 2008 and concluded last month.

The preschool portion of the Academy is licensed with the state, through the North Carolina Department of Child Development, while the elementary portion of the academy is regulated in partnership with Cherokee Central Schools.

Though Cherokee will be the predominant language of instruction, students will also be required to take an English class similar to those taught at traditional schools.

Cherokee school bridges tradition and the future

While some students dread returning to the classroom this time of year, children in Cherokee have been asking for weeks about when they would get to go back to school.

With the unveiling of The Eastern Band of Cherokee’s new school last week, it’s easy to see why. The giant yet graceful building sits on a sprawling campus cradled in a cove by the surrounding Smoky Mountains.

The school will serve 1,300 students in grades K through 12. The school came at a cost of $140 million, including the land acquisition, site prep and design. The construction alone cost $109 million, the lion’s share paid for with revenue from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Given the price tag, it makes Cherokee’s school the most expensive per capita endeavor in the region, if not the state.

“It’s gorgeous. When they said we were going to get a new school, this is not what we were expecting,” said Candice Crowe, a member of the Eastern Band, who attended a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony last Friday.

In addition to the stunning architecture, the classrooms are outfitted with technology and features found in few college buildings, let alone public school systems.

Samantha Crowe-Hernandez, who is getting her teaching degree at Western Carolina University, is looking forward to doing her student teaching at the new Cherokee school this year.

“It is overwhelming,” she said. “It is more than you could ever imagine. If you could have a dream school, this is it.”

Crowe, who was Miss Cherokee in high school, is also majoring in Cherokee Studies and learning to speak Cherokee. The written and spoken language has been integrated into the Cherokee curriculum for all students. In fact, a wing of the new school is dedicated to Cherokee language learning.

“Everybody is sticking together to keep our language, and I want to be part of that,” Crowe said.


New beginnings

The school opening came just days after the appointment of a new superintendent, Joyce Dugan. Dugan served as the superintendent of the school system in the early 1990s, served four years as the chief of the tribe, then worked in upper management at the casino.

During her speech, Dugan thanked the tribal council, the governing body for the tribe, for its long fight to see the school to fruition.

“Thank you for believing in this project and giving it all the financial support that was needed,” Dugan said.

Chief Michell Hicks said he was proud of what the tribe is accomplishing, and the school is a testimony to their progress and priorities.

“When I walk through the hallways, I don’t have to question, ‘Did we do it right?’” Hicks said. “We did.”

Hicks said the school will help their people continue to grow.

“It is all about giving ourselves confidence, motivating our students, motivating our teachers, our administrators,” Hicks said. “This is not the end. It is just the beginning.”

Those in attendance agreed that out of all the positive change that has occurred for the tribe thanks to gaming revenue, the new school ranks at the top.

“The tribe has put aside a lot of money from gaming to pay for this,” said Patrick Lambert, director of the Tribal Gaming Commission. “It will be good for the tribe. It’s a good day.”

Several speakers lauded the approach of the joint campus, which keeps the tribe’s entire student body under one roof, albeit a big roof.

While the old elementary school and combined middle and high school were cramped and outdated, the sprawling new campus seemed a little too big to Aniyah Younce, a third grader, who was concerned that he might get lost. Aside from that, he gave it high marks.

“It has a different playground and it has elevators,” said Aniyah, who attended the dedication last week.

His younger brother, Osti, a first grader, had one word for the new school.

“Ten,” Osti said, as in a scale of one to ten.

The stunning architecture and high-tech classrooms aren’t lost on the older students, however.

“I feel like I am going to a fancy school now,” said Bradley Welch, a freshman. “I think it is really cool.”

Ideally, the fancy school will inspire students to invest in their own education after seeing their tribal leaders invest so much in them, said Martha Humes, a teacher in the middle school.

“The excitement and enthusiasm of a campus that looks like this will funnel into the classroom,” said Humes, who lives in Sylva.

As for getting lost in the halls, Humes is already prepared to swallow her pride and ask the students for help getting around.

“They will have the place mapped out before we do,” Humes said.

The school attempts to integrate computer learning into every classroom, not just computer lab time. What’s known as a “smart board” is mounted in the wall in most classrooms. A futuristic blackboard, it reflects whatever is on the teacher’s computer screen. It also acts like a giant mouse pad, allowing teachers to scroll and click by touching the giant screen.

“They are state of the art,” said R. L. Taylor, a computer lab teacher. The “smart boards” give a big boost to classroom participation, with students vying for a turn at the board, said Taylor.

Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, was among the speakers at the dedication.

“To your students, work as hard as you possibly can and the sky is the limit,” Shuler said.

Shuler, a pro-football player who got his start at Cherokee’s arch rival Swain County High School, joked about playing football for the “other school down the way.”

“I never would have guessed in 1991 that I would be a guest speaker at a ribbon cutting ceremony for Cherokee’s new high school,” Shuler said.

“Back in 1991, we didn’t ever think we would be inviting you either,” Dugan joked back.

Land swap integral to Cherokee school

The Cherokee faced a long, uphill battle spanning decades to secure the idyllic tract of land now housing a brand new K-12 school for the tribe.

The 143-acre parcel was part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park until a few years ago and required persistence and political maneuvering on the tribe’s part to wrest it away from the park service. Ultimately, the tribe brokered a land swap by giving the park service a 218-acre tract along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waterrock Knob in exchange.

Leaders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians had sought the flat, valley-like tract near Big Cove to expand the small stronghold of tribal lands hemmed in by steep mountains and federally-owned land. The Cherokee say they were promised the tract in the 1940s as compensation for construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway cutting through tribal lands. The tribe never received the promised tract and were never compensated for land taken for the parkway construction.

The land swap was pushed through Congress by then-U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard. At a dedication of the new school last week, speaker after speaker recalled the ordeal of the land swap and paid homage to the support from Taylor and credited him with making the land swap a reality. Taylor could not be there but sent his son to speak instead.

To the tribe, however, it wasn’t so much a land swap, as “getting our land back,” said Chief Michell Hicks.

“We had to go back and rebuy it. That describes who we are as a people. We are survivors,” Hicks said. “When you step on this land, you are on sacred ground.”

Cherokee leaders to PETA: back off our bear zoos

Despite public pressure from animal rights activists, including a visit from legendary game show host Bob Barker, Cherokee leaders do not plan to address the living conditions of captive bears at three small zoos in Cherokee.

A campaign to shut down the bear zoos in Cherokee has largely targeted Chief Michell Hicks. Hicks says he supports the bear zoos, however, and disagrees with claims driven by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that the bears’ conditions are inhumane.

While Hicks agreed to meet with Barker and PETA reps last week, he warned them not to protest outside the bear zoos again without permission from tribal officials or they would be kicked off the Cherokee reservation, an option in the tribe’s corner given its status as a sovereign entity.

While Hicks has made his stance clear, the elected tribal council members — not the chief — hold the power to pass new laws and ordinances. Out of the 12 tribal council members, five responded to requests for comment. All five said that tribal council has no plans to shut down the bear zoos or to impose tougher standards.

“We are going to stand with the chief on this issue,” said David Wolfe, a tribal council member from Yellowhill.

B. Ensley, also a council member from Yellowhill, agreed.

“It is dead issue as far as I am concerned,” he said.

Tribal council members say a federal inspection of the bear zoos once a year provides sufficient oversight of the animals’ care and treatment, despite accusations to the contrary.

“I think it has been overblown,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove. “What (PETA) did was unfair to Cherokee and Western North Carolina.”

The bear zoos are entrenched in the Cherokee tourism scene.

“They have been around forever,” said Abe Wachacha, a tribal council member from Snowbird.

Several tribal council members cited the long-standing presence of the zoos as reason enough to let them continue.

“This has been their way of life and an attraction for Cherokee as long as I remember,” said Angie Kephart, a tribal council member from Cherokee County. “We used to go when we were little.”

Kephart said Barker’s celebrity status has propelled the issue, but is not a reason to shut down the zoos.

“I don’t understand why it is such a big issue,” Kephart said. “Whatever the case may be, I think we have bigger issues to attend to than the bears. We need to be addressing things going on with our tribal members and the reservation as a whole.”

Like Hicks, tribal council members said they were offended by outsiders trying to tell them what to do.

“They come in here harassing people and use their organization PETA to try to do things with numbers and hand out propaganda,” Wolfe said.

While sidewalk picketing is seen as a form of free speech in most places, those protections don’t necessarily apply in Cherokee as a sovereign entity with its own laws.

Kephart said Barker and PETA should have shown more respect and treaded more lightly.

“This is the tribe,” Kephart said. “We are a sovereign nation. We can do what we want to.”

Wachacha said this is not the first time outsiders have complained about the bear zoos.

“Other people have come before the tribe, even back in the 1980s,” Wachacha said.

Cherokee’s style of government allows any member of the tribe to bring proposed legislation before the tribal council. However, complaints about the bears have never come from a tribal member.

“We would consider it if a tribal member wanted to bring that in,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove. “All our people have that opportunity to address their government.”

Kephart said if the issue does come before tribal council, it would be appropriate to look at the existing codes and make sure they are adequate.

But Wolfe doubts it would go anywhere.

“I don’t see us tightening up or doing anything more than what they are doing,” Wolfe said.

Bob Barker and PETA say they will continue fighting the issue, even taking it to a national stage. Wachacha said he does not think it would hamper tourism or pose an image problem for Cherokee.

Shell said he has actually noticed more cars in the parking lots of one bear zoo since PETA’s campaign grabbed headlines in recent weeks.

Qualla’s art goes worldwide

Known for its legendary craftsmanship, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. just launched its new website, www.quallaartsandcrafts.org. For the first time, art collectors from around the world can view online what is said to be the largest collection of Cherokee art.

The website is a treasure trove of information about traditional and contemporary Cherokee art, and features extensive and detailed information about member artists, their work, techniques and the Mutual’s fascinating history.

“Launching the website was the next step in the cooperative’s progression so that we remain a leading vehicle for Cherokee art,” said Yona Wade, outreach coordinator at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. “We can truly offer our members a worldwide opportunity to showcase their work, and art collectors have a new way to view and learn about Cherokee’s legendary craftsmanship.”

Founded in 1946 to secure fair prices and provide a year-round market for Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian artisans, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. is the nation’s oldest and leading arts and crafts cooperative. It has approximately 300 members who create baskets, pottery, wood and stone carved sculpture, beadwork, fine art paintings and more for display and purchase at the co-op. Many member artists work with age-old, traditional techniques and materials, while others experiment with new methods and abstract forms.

Entry to Qualla Mutual is a juried process and is restricted to enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The purity and simplicity of ancient and contemporary Cherokee arts and crafts on display in the co-op’s gallery have attracted collectors from around the world. Free gallery tours are available Thursdays through Sundays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. through Aug. 29. Qualla Mutual also offers appraisal and repair services; and for more information about these services, call 828.497.3103.

Barker visits WNC in campaign to help bears

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians didn’t have to duke it out with other contestants or so much as wager a guess, but somehow, they got the price exactly right. On Tuesday, July 28, the tribe won a visit from long-time game show host Bob Barker. The legendary host of “The Price is Right” was in the area for a meeting with Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the plight of bears kept in three small zoos on the reservation.

Meeting the chief had been a goal of Barker’s since last month, when he announced he had teamed with animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to protest the conditions of the Cherokee bear zoos.

Barker’s meeting took place at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, just as this paper went to press. Before the meeting, Barker planned to visit all three zoos to check out the conditions. He said the zoos would be his only stop on his trip to Western North Carolina.

“I’m just going to visit the bear zoos. I won’t have time to do anything else, unfortunately, because I think the rest of Cherokee would be much more enjoyable than seeing these bears,” Barker said.

Following the meeting with Hicks, Barker will hold a press conference at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 29, to discuss his visit to the zoos and his meeting with the chief.

Barker hoped during his visit to convince the owners of the three zoos to release the bears and allow PETA officials to transport them to a sanctuary in Northern California at no cost. Barker estimated that about 30 bears would make the trip.

“They have a place for the bears to live in the way nature intended and never again have to entertain tourists or anybody else,” said Barker.

Barker and PETA have decried the conditions at Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land, saying the bears are housed inadequately in concrete pens with little stimulation.

Whether Barker’s campaign will have any impact on the practice of keeping caged black bears in Cherokee is up to the Tribal Council. Though federal regulations allow the keeping of bears, the council has the authority to pass legislation outlawing the practice on the reservation.

However, that kind of change may be slow to come. Tribal Council Chairman Mike Parker said he was not aware of Barker’s upcoming visit or his meeting with the chief, though Hicks had said tribal council would likely be present. In fact, Parker said he had never heard about Barker’s campaign with PETA.

“I don’t remember or recall ever talking about it,” Parker said. “My guess is that [the zoos] comply with federal regulations. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business.”

Prior to the meeting, Hicks said he anticipated speaking with Barker and PETA representatives about the bears and listening to their advice, then getting feedback on tribal law and the bear zoos’ compliance with federal regulations.

“We’ll kind of see how it goes from there,” Hicks said. “It’s going to be interesting — obviously, a lot of people know Bob Barker.”

Parker said Barker was taking the correct approach in asking to meet with the chief. He cautioned against forcing the issue.

“If he’s going to talk to the chief, that’s good, but to come in and try to force an issue, I don’t necessarily agree with that. That approach has been taken with us before and had some disastrous effects, so we’re kind of leery of that approach,” Parker said.

Barker said he would ultimately like to see Tribal Council outlaw the practice of caging bears, and “never have another bear on exhibition in Cherokee.”

Barker said he thinks, overall, the campaign has been a success.

“I think there has been an awareness of it, but that nobody was speaking up. The support has been so forthcoming since we’ve got into it and it’s been publicized,” Barker said.

Cherokee youth re-enact ancient fishing practice

As 10-year-old Dayini Lossie stood on the shore eyeing the wide shallow waters of the Tuckasegee River last week listening to the marching orders for the exercise about to unfold, one word came to mind: awesome.

Lossie had never heard of a fish weir before, but now she was about to walk in her ancestors’ footsteps, using the same stone wall her people built centuries ago to once again — hopefully — trap some fish.

“The objective is to herd the fish, stomping and screaming and basically scaring them downstream,” explained Mark Cantrell, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Lossie, along with two dozen other Cherokee students, couldn’t wait. They’d been in and out of the river all day, their shoes, shirts and shorts soaked through many times over as they swam, splashed and explored aquatic biology along the way.

But as they waded into the river this time, stringing themselves out in a long line and facing the ancient weir downstream, they realized they were part of something big.

“We’re learning about our history and how our ancestors used the river,” Lossie said.

As the students began moving downstream, flushing the fish toward a trap at the mouth of the weir, it didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. One student would fall, then another, then suddenly the chain would disintegrate leaving big gaps for the fish to sneak through. Some started splashing each other instead of the water in front of them. Others took intermittent breaks to float on their backs.

But eventually, the line closed in on the weir and two modest-sized fish were ushered into the trap.

“We all would have starved if this was dinner tonight,” Cantrell declared.

It became apparent just how much cooperation a fish weir entailed.

“I learned so much myself,” said Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, which coordinated the event. “Though it is obvious, you could really see how Cherokee fishing at a weir is a community experience, not just one, two or three people.”

The re-enactment was orchestrated by WATR, an environmental group whose central focus is water quality. Funding came from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, the Royal Bank of Canada and WATR. To help pull off the re-enactment, biologists with the Cherokee Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and several volunteers with WATR pitched in.

The field trip brought kids not only in touch with their heritage, but the ecosystem, Clapp said.

Armed with nets and buckets, kids took to the river upturning rocks and sifting through sediment in search of crawdads, bugs and fish lurking below the surface. A science station allowed them to examine their finds under microscopes.

“The creek bottom underneath them is actually teeming with life,” said Clapp. “It is a living ecological unit.”

The students also got to hear a program from Russ Townsend, a historic preservation officer for the Cherokee, who quizzed them on the role rivers played for their ancestors, which included everything from transportation to the gathering of mussel shells that were ground up and mixed with clay for pottery.

“The Cherokee were very smart. They knew how to use the environment. They loved living here because they could get everything they needed and the rivers were a major source of that,” said Townsend

Cherokee could do better regulating bear zoos

“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”

— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks


The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.

According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.

The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.

Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.

The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.

The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.

Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.

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