[lg policy] Cherokee for Beginners: the Long Road Back, Starting on Campus
haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 13 16:24:27 UTC 2011
Cherokee for Beginners: the Long Road Back, Starting on Campus
[image: Cherokee for Beginners: the Long Road Back, Starting on Campus 1]
Mike Simons for The Chronicle
Chris Smith, a senior at Northeastern State U., handles multimedia at the
campus's Center for Tribal Studies. The statue is of Sequoyah, creator of
the Cherokee syllabary.
By Lawrence Biemiller
Rebecca Carey-Drywater learned Cherokee the easy way, by growing up in a
home where it was spoken all day long. Her mother knew almost no English, in
fact, and while Ms. Carey-Drywater was still a child she became her mother's
translator. "She depended on me to read the street names on buses and the
directions at the Laundromat, and to speak on the telephone," Ms.
Carey-Drywater told me when I stopped here to visit Northeastern State
University. "I was very shy, but I would do all her communicating."
There were awkward moments, she recalled—"I wanted my English-speaking
friends to come visit, but my mom didn't understand them"—but her parents'
language has stuck with her through the decades, and now she's putting it to
a new use in a Cherokee-immersion school that the Cherokee Nation opened
with help from the university. The school aims to give Cherokee kids—almost
all of them from families where English is the primary language—the kind of
fluency that Ms. Carey-Drywater grew up with.
She was among several Northeastern State students, faculty members, and
administrators who got together one afternoon to tell me about a series of
efforts to promote a revival of the Cherokee language. The efforts began
after a 2002 survey found that the number of fluent Cherokee speakers had
dropped to about 10,000—most of them older than 50—among the nearly 290,000
members of the Cherokee Nation who live in 14 Oklahoma counties and
elsewhere in the United States. "The situation was much worse than people
had anticipated," said Wyman Kirk, an assistant professor of Cherokee
language at the university, which usually enrolls about two dozen students
in Cherokee studies and Cherokee education programs. "The language doesn't
exist under the age of 40"—at least not in the sense of people having real
conversations with each other. Even Cherokee church congregations have
almost all switched to English—only two still offer services in Cherokee.
"The baby boomers were our main resources, and I've lost five in my family
in the past five years," added Travis Wolfe, a student majoring in Cherokee
education. He said only about 140 American Indian languages remain, among
565 tribes. "Once you lose your language, you lose your culture."
Their language has long been a matter of particular pride for Cherokee
people. Mr. Wolfe told me that Cherokee is part of the family of Iroquoian
languages and is believed to be around 6,000 years old. In the early 19th
century, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah spent about a decade creating a
writing system, known as the Cherokee syllabary, in which 85 characters
represent the language's basic sounds. Sequoyah invented some character
shapes and borrowed others from a variety of alphabets, including Roman and
Greek, but in Cherokee the borrowed characters represent entirely different
sounds—"W" sounds like "la," for instance, and ß—the Greek beta—is
The syllabary was adopted for printing presses in 1828, the year the
Cherokee Nation began publishing a newspaper, called the *Cherokee Phoenix,
*in New Echota, which was in northwest Georgia and was the Cherokee capital*
.* But in 1838 the federal government forced thousands of Cherokees off of
their land in Georgia and western North Carolina and onto the Trail of
Tears, which led them to what's now northeastern Oklahoma. Hundreds died of
starvation and disease along the way.
>>From the 1870s well into the 20th century, Cherokee and other native
languages were suppressed by the federal government, which—among other
tactics—sent some American Indian children away to boarding schools, at
which they were to be assimilated into American society. When the Oklahoma
Territory became a state, in 1906, the Cherokee Nation surrendered control
of local schools here (including the Cherokee Female Seminary, which the
state purchased and transformed into the normal school that became
Northeastern State University).
"My mother still has scars on her hands" from being punished for speaking
Cherokee as a schoolgirl, Mr. Wolfe said. Because of such policies, he said,
"a couple of generations grew up without the language." Among his 60 or so
first cousins, he is the only one who's worked to learn more than the
rudiments of the language.
Mr. Kirk, the professor of Cherokee, said the 2002 survey found that "people
thought the language was crucial." That led Cherokee Nation officials to
establish the school where Ms. Carey-Drywater works, and to work with the
university to set up a program for preparing Cherokee-speaking teachers. The
university, where about 30 percent of students are American Indian, "got the
program mapped out and approved in about a year and a half," Mr. Kirk said.
The immersion school, meanwhile, has been adding one grade a year, and now
offers full-immersion programs for just over 100 kids from age 3 through
The school here in Tahlequah, the modern Cherokee Nation capital, isn't the
only effort at making the language more relevant. In western North Carolina,
the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians—descendants of those who refused to
take part in the move to Oklahoma—have also set up a Cherokee immersion
school, although the eastern dialect differs from the language spoken here.
"Their negation is a little different," said Chris Smith, a Northeastern
State senior who is the multimedia specialist at the university's Center for
Tribal Studies. "And out here we like to cut things off—we slang it up a
Mr. Smith pulled out his iPhone to show me how the Cherokee Nation is
turning to new technology to create uses for the language that will attract
younger users. Apple, which has included Cherokee in its computer operating
system for several years, now puts it on phones as well—which means Cherokee
speakers with iPhones can text one another using Sequoyah's syllabary. They
can also consult an application called iSyllabary to check the pronunciation
of less-familiar characters, and beginners can practice basic vocabulary
with an app called iCherokee.
As easy as Mr. Smith made Cherokee look when he offered me my first
lesson—texting me the characters for *o si yo,* or "hello"—it's actually a
very difficult language for English speakers to learn, Mr. Wolfe and Mr.
Kirk told me. For starters, it's a tonal language, although the tones are
not reflected in the syllabary, and it has a grammar entirely unlike
European languages. Mr. Wolfe said Cherokee is probably as difficult for the
average English speaker to learn as Chinese.
That's where the immersion-school students have a big advantage. "The older
kids surpass me in the language," said Mr. Smith. "It's very difficult
because my mind is an English mind."
Ms. Carey-Drywater—who earned her third Northeastern State degree last
month, this one in school administration—is working to make sure her
students have as easy a time as possible as they use Cherokee to learn,
talk, write, and play. Recently, she said, she's been going from class to
class and teaching students songs with Cherokee words set to familiar tunes,
like "Three Blind Mice" and "Frosty the Snowman." She even went out on a
limb with a song set to the Drifters' hit "Under the Boardwalk."
She's been working at the school four years now, she told me, and it's been
"an absolutely fantastic experience." Or, in Cherokee, [image: Chronicle of
*'I'm Hungry': Agi Yosi Ha *
Chris Smith, a senior at Northeastern State University, agreed to give me a
quick introduction to Cherokee. The syllabary that Sequoyah created early in
the 19th century represents 85 sounds that, combined one way and another,
make up the language. (They can also be represented phonetically.) Verbs are
its basic building blocks, but each has prefixes and suffixes.
To say "I'm hungry," for instance, start with the root for hunger, *yosi. *To
that, add a first-person prefix, *agi,* and a marker for the present tense,
*ha.* You end up with: *Agi yosi ha.*
* *To ask "Are you hungry?" keep the same *yosi* root, but instead of *agi*use
*tsa,* for "you," with the same present-tense marker, *ha,* and an *s*,
indicating a question: *Tsa yosi has.*
* *To say "I will be hungry," change the present-tense marker, *ha,* to the
future tense, *hesdi*: *Agi yosi hesdi.*
[image: Chronicle of Higher Education]
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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