Faced with the situation of elder speakers dying far more quickly than new speakers have been emerging, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is working to revitalize the Cherokee language. “Speaking a language means we have a culture,” said an elder. “There is a big difference between people who have a culture and people with a history.” Cherokee Preservation Foundation is investing significantly in the complex effort.
In 2005, with the first of many significant investments from Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program (KPEP) of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians initiated the development of a 10-year plan for the revitalization of the Cherokee language. As a starting point, the Foundation funded a survey whose results indicated that 460 fluent speakers were then living in Cherokee communities, with 72 percent of them over the age of 50 and elder speakers dying far more quickly than new speakers were emerging.The process of revitalizing the language is complex. While it has been spoken for hundreds of years, there is little in written form that can be used for instruction and few people are trained in teaching it.
In recent years, Cherokee Preservation Foundation has invested over $4.5 million in a multi-faceted effort that includes:
During the past ten years, much has been accomplished by the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program and Western Carolina University, along with community-based language learning offered by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. In 2010, Cherokee Preservation Foundation commissioned a mid-plan assessment by native language experts to help identify how the Cherokee language initiative is doing and what is needed to help achieve its long-term goals.
The assessment reported solid progress in the effort to save the Cherokee language, with the authors saying:
The assessors also acknowledged there are significant challenges inherent to the complex task of revitalizing Cherokee language. These include the mammoth undertaking of creating learning materials for varied ages, finding and training teachers, designing programs for adult second-language learning, and identifying tools to measure fluency—all of which are being done for the first time. The assessment report contained recommendations to strengthen the shared vision and planning, as well as the capacities and coordination of those working on language revitalization.
These recommendations will help language initiative partners strengthen their work over coming years, and their efforts are vital. “Speaking a language means we have a culture,” said an elder. “There is a big difference between people who have a culture and people with a history.”