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Speaking Across Generations

Cherokee Work to Save Their Language

By Laura Harbold | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

"Language, more than anything else in a culture, encapsulates the philosophy, and the world view, and the patterns of thinking of the people," says Barbara Duncan, the education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Today, the Cherokee language is endangered. Although ten thousand speakers remain in Oklahoma and North Carolina, most are more than fifty years old. Less than 5 percent of Cherokee children are learning to speak the language.

"There's only a window of twenty years or so, or less, to make sure the language continues," Duncan says.

Duncan is heading a two-year effort by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to preserve and revitalize the language. The project is part of NEH's Documenting Endangered Languages initiative, which has funded efforts to preserve more than seventy languages. Museum scholars, Cherokee language students, and community elders will work with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to digitize and translate a collection of Cherokee documents spanning 150 years.

The documents are in Cherokee syllabary, a writing system devised by the silversmith Sequoyah. The syllabary is comprised of eighty-five characters, each representing a syllable in Cherokee.

Most of the syllabary materials were written by Cherokees in the late nineteenth century.

The collection includes public notices, censuses, medical formulae, botany records, traditional dance songs, and stories. Among several volumes of correspondence there are letters written by Cherokees serving as Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. "The syllabary materials are very important," says Jerry Wolfe, a native Cherokee who gives presentations on Cherokee history and culture at the museum. "It's our identity."

The museum team will create a digital version of the syllabary to be translated and studied by Cherokee elders and language students in North Carolina. Elders will offer interpretations of archaic vocabulary unfamiliar to modern scholars, and audio recordings will be made to document pronunciation. Eventually, full translations of the material will be available online and through the archives of the Cherokee museum and the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland.

James "Bo" Taylor, archivist at the Cherokee museum and a registered member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, offers a ten-day language immersion course that project team members will be required to take before working with the elders.

"There's less emphasis on speaking, but rather on reacting--getting familiar with the language and the sounds," says Taylor. He conducts each one-hour session entirely in Cherokee, using props to illustrate his speech and forbidding students from taking notes.

Taylor describes Cherokee as a difficult language. Like other Iroquian languages, it has no bilabial stops--b and p consonant sounds. In all, Cherokee has only eleven consonants and six vowels. The length and pitch of a Cherokee vowel can affect its meaning, a characteristic not found in English.

Cherokee is a verb-based language, Taylor explains, which means that verbs serve as the foundations to which smaller units of meaning are added. Changes in tense, person, mood, and number are achieved through a string of prefixes and suffixes. For example, the Cherokee word agiyosiha is equivalent to the English sentence "I am hungry." Yosi is the root verb meaning "to hunger"; agi is a prefix meaning "I," and ha is a suffix signifying present tense.

Given all possible combinations, each regular Cherokee verb can have more than twenty thousand inflected forms.

According to Duncan, in order to use many Cherokee verbs correctly, "You have to know whether the object that you're talking about is a liquid, a lump, a flexible thing, a long, rigid object, or something alive. So, in the Cherokee language, there is a whole way of looking at the world and classifying the world that is unique."

Despite the complexity of the language, Taylor says students leave his course with a solid foundation in Cherokee. "What I try to do is create connections that help you learn on your own," he explains. "When you use the language more, those connections become stronger."

Duncan hopes Taylor's class will increase the number of fluent speakers in the town of Cherokee. "It has been really difficult for people to learn conversational Cherokee," she says. Currently, Cherokee is primarily spoken among elders.

According to Duncan, Cherokee's decline is due to a long process of acculturation, including the period of federal boarding schools established in 1893. The schools were run on a military model, and speaking Cherokee was forbidden.

Wolfe attended a government boarding school in Cherokee, North Carolina. "All the kids just about spoke the Cherokee language. We were banned from speaking it and yet we snuck around and we talked," Wolfe recalls. If teachers overheard students speaking Cherokee, he says, "They'd give you a good strapping with a big belt. They didn't sit down and talk to us like a counselor today would do."

The federal boarding school system was in place for fifty years. As a result, Duncan says, "The children who went through the boarding school system mostly did not teach their children because, they will say, 'We didn't want our children to be punished like we were.'"

Today, Wolfe says his children are learning to speak Cherokee as a result of efforts like Taylor's language immersion class. "Just about all the kids are learning to speak," he says.

"It's very, very important that we hold our language, preserve it," Wolfe explains. "If we lose our language, then we're just like anyone else. So I say to work and work and never cease teaching the language."

About the Author

Laura Harbold, a junior at Dickinson College, was an intern at NEH.

Funding Information

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian received a $168,274 grant to complete digitization and translation of the Cherokee syllabary materials in the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives. The project is part of the Documenting Endangered Languages initiative, a new, multi-year effort offered jointly by NEH and the National Science Foundation to preserve records of key languages before they become extinct.