Cherokee Tongue (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Sep 22 17:49:26 UTC 2003

Cherokee tribe tries to save a dying language

JENNY BURNS, Associated Press Writer Friday, September 19, 2003 ©2003
Associated Press


(09-19) 15:54 PDT   LOST CITY, Okla. (AP) --

The kindergarten teacher speaks to her class in Cherokee, telling the
children to pull out their mats for nap time. Using their Cherokee names,
she instructs "Yo-na," or Bear, to place his mat away from "A-wi," or Deer.
Soft Cherokee music lulls them to sleep.

These youngsters' parents were mocked for speaking Cherokee. Their
grandparents were punished. But Cherokee is the only language these
children will speak in their public school classroom.

By immersing the youngsters in the language of their ancestors, tribal
leaders are hoping to save one of the many endangered American Indian

It is a modest start, consisting of just 10 kindergartners in a single
classroom at the Lost City School, 50 miles east of Tulsa. But their
Cherokee language instruction will continue throughout their school years.

"The language is going to be gone if we don't do something, and the best
people to learn are kids in the developmental stage of kindergarten," said
Annette Millard, a non-Cherokee who is superintendent of the Lost City
School, with about 100 students, two-thirds of them from the tribe.

Around the country, other Indian languages are disappearing as well. The
native speakers are dying off, and the language cannot compete against
English, which is pervasive through television and other forms of pop

While many tribes are trying to reinvigorate their languages, doing so can
be particularly difficult in places like Oklahoma, where Indians generally
attend public schools and do not live on reservations.

On the vast Navajo reservation in the Southwest, for example, the Navajo
language is taught on reservation schools and most tribal members speak it.
In Oklahoma, fewer than 8,000 of the 100,000 Cherokees can speak the
language fluently, and most of those who can are over 45.

In fact, assimilation policies once discouraged Cherokees from speaking
their native language in schools.

The father of Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith was punished for speaking
Cherokee at Sequoyah High School, located at the seat of Cherokee
government in Tahlequah.

"If you spoke the language, your mouth was washed out with soap," Smith
said. "It was an effort to destroy the language and it was fairly

In Lost City, Millard offered a classroom -- and started learning the
language along with her staff -- after hearing a plea from the chief. The
Cherokee Nation is paying the salaries of the teacher and an assistant.

The school has a weekly "Rise and Shine" assembly where all grades begin
with the greeting "o-si-yo" and discuss the word for the week. One recent
week, the word was truthfulness, or "du-yu-go-dv."

Millard calls students by their Cherokee names and encourages them by
saying "o-sta" -- "good" -- with a smile. Her office is adorned with
Cherokee words and pronunciations posted on objects like the telephone and
her desk chair. (The Cherokee alphabet, which now consists of 84 symbols,
each representing a syllable, was codified by Sequoyah in 1821.)

The children are encouraged to speak Cherokee at home.

After five weeks of school, Lane Smith, or "A-wi," told his mother in
Cherokee that he was going outside to play. She was not quite sure what he
said, but she is now starting to relearn the language she knew at age 5.

"My family has asked Lane what he has learned today and they are learning
right along with him," said Kristal Smith, who is not related to the
Cherokee chief. "I plan to have him keep going with the language."

Tribal leaders say it is vital that the language survive.

"We have our medicine, our plant life, our universe and the language the
Creator has given us," said Harry Oosahwee, the tribe's language projects
supervisor. "Our medicine doesn't understand other languages but Cherokee.
All this is interconnected."

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