The Cherokee Nation is stepping up efforts to preserve its native language, with immersion schools and programs designed to protect elders.
Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe’s “sacred mission” was to save and revitalize the language.
“Nearly three years ago Deputy Chief Bryan Warner and I proposed to the Council of the Cherokee Nation the Durbin Feeling Language Preservation Act. The act allowed us to make a historic investment of $16 million in additional measures to preserve and perpetuate the language,” Hoskin said. “This act is how we are building the state-of-the-art Durbin Feeling Language Center in Tahlequah to house, for the first time, all of our Cherokee language programs under one roof.”
Other projects were made possible under this law, including a new immersion school in Adair County, a residential village for Cherokee speakers, and more.
The greatest enemy of the Cherokee language, said Hoskin, is the passage of time and the fragility of human life.
“Our Cherokee language is key to our identity as Indigenous people. It’s the chain that connects us to our past, and it’s what unites us today,” Hoskin said. “Long into the future, may we look back on this decade to see that we have revitalized the Cherokee language and other indigenous languages around the world, and that we have done so because we have understood the importance of our immersion programs.
Howard Paden, Executive Director of the Cherokee Language Department, spoke about the programs.
“The Cherokee Nation offers several opportunities for our citizens – or even those who may not be citizens – to immerse themselves in the Cherokee language, and we are working diligently on new, more modern immersion opportunities throughout time,” Paden said.
This includes the Immersion School, which offers its K-8 students a curriculum taught to serious level standards set by the State of Oklahoma and exclusively taught in the Cherokee language.
“The books they read and write, the posters hanging on the walls of their classrooms, the music they sing in music class – it’s all in Cherokee through an immersive environment,” he said. .
Paden said the school was called “Tsalagi Tsunadeloquasdi” in Cherokee. It opened in 2001 and received its charter in 2010, making it Oklahoma’s first charter school for Cherokee language immersion.
With the construction of the Durbin Feeling Language Center, the immersion school will soon move to this new building, southwest of the WW Keeler Tribal Resort in Tahlequah.
On August 19, Paden led a tour through the construction area, showing future sites for classrooms, a library, cafeteria, recording room, and archives.
Tahlequah resident Dora Dunn is fluent in Cherokee and teaches at an immersion school. Participating in the Friday tour, Dunn saw his future classroom for the first time.
“God, it was overwhelming just thinking about the class,” Dunn said. “I just imagined [the classroom] sparkling and beautiful – ready to teach.
Dunn has been teaching preschool and doing immersion for 21 years. She said the new school is much “bigger and better” than the current one and believes children will learn better in the space, with more room for interactive play and learning.
“I love teaching and giving my language back to someone who will perpetuate it,” Dunn said.
Construction manager Kenny Foreman said the project is about 80% complete and should be operational by the end of the year.
“[The language center is] probably one of the most, if not the most important, projects the Cherokee Nation has ever done,” Foreman said. “It’s an honor to be a part of it.”
Foreman said the center is approximately 56,000 square feet.
Paden said there are also immersive language programs for adults, like the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice program.
“CLMAP pairs novice learners with master-level Cherokee speakers. Participants are immersed full-time Monday through Friday, all day, and receive compensation as part of this program,” he said.
Paden described the program as an “intense two-year commitment”. By the end, he said, attendees should be at least conversing in Cherokee.
“There have been 32 graduates so far, with the seventh cohort having recently graduated. The majority of our CLMAP graduates have become teachers, returned to college for verification or a teaching credential, or they have been hired into one of our Cherokee language programs,” Paden said.
With the recent expansion, Paden said, they hope to expand this program.
Paden said most Cherokee citizens aren’t necessarily raised in a home with a fluent Cherokee speaker. He estimated that only about 2,000 Cherokee first-language speakers remained, among more than 430,000 tribal citizens.
“So creating opportunities for our citizens to be immersed in the Cherokee language is absolutely critical to ensuring not only that we save the language for years to come, but that we establish some kind of re-growth that makes the language is spoken by more and more. Cherokees as part of their daily lives,” Paden said. “Immersive learning is the key to this success.”
Paden said he believed “with everything [his] heart” that the Cherokee language will not be lost. There are 26 projects or programs in the Cherokee Language Department.
“We’re going to develop it and start using it instinctively more and more,” Paden said. “Our cultural identity is the basis of our uniqueness as Cherokee people.”
Paden talked about the difficulties of learning Cherokee.
“It’s not easy to learn a language that has more than 80 characters and several different tones. Some of our estimates show it takes 3,500 hours to become conversational,” Paden said. “That’s a huge amount of time when you compare the Cherokee language to a language like Spanish, which is described as a ‘Level 1’ language and takes around 430 hours to learn and be conversational. This again shows how essential it is to be in an immersive environment where everything is said or written in the Cherokee language.
Paden said that without their language, the Cherokee lose “the capacity for our uniqueness”.
“I believe the Cherokee immersion programs will allow us to maintain the traditional relationships we have had with our spirituality, the land, our communities and our families,” Paden said. “Fluent Cherokee speakers often remind us that the wisdom and cultural knowledge of the Cherokee people is found in the language.”
The next part of this three-part series on the Cherokee language will focus on the tribe’s new Speaker Services program.