COMMENTARY: Cherokee language has become a novelty

by Aug 15, 2018OPINIONS


Shi-yo  Ni-ga-da,

It is the start of another school year. Every year, we send our kids to schools, private and public, to learn so they will be articulate and literate in this modern world. Every year, high schools graduate seniors and elementary schools welcome new fledglings. But, every year as kids begin their journeys to articulation and literacy; the Eastern Band of Cherokee sees a growth of inarticulate individuals and illiteracy in an area where it should not belong. The growth is among the very thing that makes us Cherokee and that is language.

To say the Cherokee are inarticulate or illiterate in their own language might seem strange to an outsider not well versed in our plight. Visitors flock to the Qualla Boundary in droves to gamble or catch a glimpse of “real” Indians. To distance ourselves from the early years of commercialized Indians, we showcase our knowledge of culture with shows, attractions and advertisements. The paramount feature to Cherokee uniqueness is the language itself.   The Cherokee language litters our streets, signs, and buildings. It rides along with us on our cars, clothes and bodies. We showcase the language to outsiders so there is no mistaking us from other tribes.

“What is G-W-Y?” It is a question everyone in the Tribe will answer at some point. While the answers can vary like the fact the “G” more properly makes the “wa” sound rendering translation useless or the straightforward answer that it is not G-W-Y  but Tsa-la-gi meaning Cherokee in our language. The resounding notion is that all of our answers come off arrogant. We answer as someone who is an articulate and literate individual, even though we might know very little. So, we represent ourselves to outsiders as individuals who embody 200-ish of our tribal members but we can all agree, we answer the question.

Arrogance is one attribution of how the Tribe finds itself with 16,000 members and 99 percent of which being inarticulate and illiterate in Cherokee language. As a Tribe, we glorify the language only when that glorification can be seen. The Cherokee language in this modern world is used as amusement or as I see it, a novelty. Our language has become synonymous to that of Chinese knickknacks that pepper the windows of numerous generic gift shops. Much like the faux tomahawks the language has become cheap, inexpensive and only good for brief enjoyment.

This notion of course is denied by us, the Tribe. This denial, like arrogance, feeds the ignorance that our language is dying. With every dying speaker the Tribe will acknowledge the loss but in reality it is acknowledging the loss of an excuse. The most recurrent excuse being the belief that our speakers will always be around so there is no hysteria to learn the language right away.  The importance of speakers is undervalued and will continue if we still believe there will not be a time when we have no speakers left. Until this time comes we will habitual sit in our growing denial.

Speakers are invaluable, but they are overly exploited and underutilized. How can this statement be true? Every week, month, and year we watch as our speakers disappear but what are we, the Tribe, doing? We continue to use them arbitrarily. They have become tribal Google; except you dial a home line instead of type into a search bar. Unfortunately, we do not call seeking ways to save language effectively. We call only when it comes to translations. It is for our political agenda, pageant speeches, tattoo ideas, or inappropriate words. We bombard them with meaningless task, but, as a Tribe we never ask the important question. Will you help us save our language?

They say children are our future, but who is responsible for our present? This problem continues to plague us as a Tribe. We do not strive for answers; we remain idling for someone else’s solution. During this time of waiting, we continue to deny ourselves learning the language out of embarrassment. It is embarrassment but also hatred as we discourage those who do. It could be outsiders, non-enrolled or even the enrolled who find the language fascinating to learn, but we provide resistance. We discourage them for being not “Cherokee” or if they are, we belittle and correct them on how to say words.

Learners will often find themselves the blunt of slang words, the most infamous being “Yuneg”. They endure all of this harassment stemming from a Tribe with very few actual speakers. So, the next time we want to correct someone on how our grandparents said things, how about we learn to say them too? The next time we want to use the slang word “Yuneg”, we should use it while looking at ourselves in a mirror. We are what we speak and “Yuneg” is all that is spoken here and that’s translation you will not have to call for.


Jakeli Swimmer

Snowbird Community