Cherokee language revitalization provides roots and wings for EBCI

Despite various assimilation strategies and immense funding efforts by the United States government to eliminate Native American languages, the Cherokee people have persevered through spiritual fortitude to sustain their language over several generations with limited financial resources.

The EBCI and the Foundation are now able to offer funding to strategic partners who are seeking new and innovative ways to preserve the Cherokee language. The EBCI Kituwah Preservation and Education Program (KPEP) is a language preservation institute that seeks to sustain the Cherokee language by offering immersion classes to qualified Cherokee families. Currently, their program has dozens of children attending the institute and learning the language from birth through third grade.

Also, KPEP has developed other language support programs like language

immersion camps, community-based language collaborations and offerings. A recent KPEP grant was funded to develop and archive Cherokee language materials.

Teachers typically determine which materials are developed, which are reviewed and approved by curriculum development professionals. Bo Lossiah, KPEP Curriculum, Instruction and Community Supervisor, notes that materials adhere to the common core prescription as much as possible.

“We look at the needed materials, decide what graphics are needed, and find what we need, either by scanning existing materials or creating them using local talent,” said Bo. “Once we do this we start translating with the objectives by common core.”

KPEP continues to translate words, phrases, books, stories, and songs, as they’ve done for more than a decade. In some cases, KPEP translates some simpler materials, while working with other native speakers to solve complex language challenges.

“Grammar and semantics differ in both languages,” said Bo. “Once the material is created or the concept is recreated we need for someone to hear it to assure that the meaning and purpose is accurate.”

For example, Cherokee speakers cannot say, “Give me” the pencil, the ball, some water, a piece of paper, or the baby with the same verb. “Give it to me” is very specific. In Cherokee part of the description is required. The directive is a concept not required in English.

Several books have been translated, and many more created in house. Some books are purchased, English removed and replaced with Cherokee. There is a bank of stories, and sometimes the stories are paired with a speaker and an artist. One such book is called “Why the Mole lives Underground.”

Most of these materials (except books) are available in digital form through the Cherokee language search engine, Many access this central database, including the local paper One Feather, and second-language learners. Native speakers review and reference the database, sometimes suggesting spelling changes, more precise definitions, and grammatical usage.

Because the Cherokee language is alive, new words are created and old words rediscovered frequently. Sometimes compound words work by combining two Cherokee words, but it depends on the context.

A consortium assures that new words are meaningful to all three tribes, EBCI, Cherokee Nation, and The UKB. Sometimes that means that a word has many possibilities, and all three tribes accept variations.

“The Consortium keeps the language unified. There are differences, but we know it to be One language, One blood, One power. We give each other clout and exchange research. We have researched historical language items and presented them to each other. Recently, the reverend Bo Parris brought old Cherokee hymns to discuss and affirm. Some of the songs are passed down orally and those were the only records kept until that day,” said Bo.

Old words are identified through conversation, so consequently it’s critical that speakers have the license to speak freely and candidly. If speakers were constrained to a classroom the knowledge would be limited.

“Ahage-Is the word “swaddle” for a baby. Had I not had a candid conversation with Jonah Wolfe, I would have never known. What is the price of a word? What is the price of lost knowledge? These words are spawned from spontaneity from our oldest speakers that have those moments in their deepest memories. We are blessed to acquire that consciousness,” said Bo.

Leave a comment