By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Getting youth engaged in the Cherokee language can be challenging. Our young people are smart, energetic and purposeful. From early ages, our kids will challenge any directive that does not have a right answer for the “why.” They want to know what relevance any material that they need to store in those bright minds will have on their current lives. They don’t mind history, as long as it has some meaning, relationship, and use for them today.
This fact can present challenges when we get to the subject of the Cherokee language. Hard questions present themselves when engaging young and old about the relevance of the word in society today. If the language is essential, then why aren’t we speaking it as a first language on the Qualla Boundary? If it is vital, why is it not a job requirement? If it is a cultural essential, why it is not a qualifier for tribal government candidates?
Culturally, we have in our hearts the desire to know our language. It is like we instinctively know that is what makes up our being as a Cherokee person. But, many times, our desire is subjugated by other “needs.”
We are a society of perpetual motion. Our lives are filled with work, family, friends, and extracurricular activities. For example, I know those who prioritize sports over language. Parents and children will never miss a practice or a game and will not miss a free moment to train for a competition. Most parents do not have to be prepared to help their kids with sports because it was likely a priority for their parents and the love and discipline for sports has been passed down. Walking the hallways of the Ginger Lynn Welch Building, I rarely hear my coworkers talk about the language with the same zeal that they do a football game. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with a good, healthy love of sports, but how do you motivate folks to embrace language with similar affection? What drives us to act on that desire that is within us?
There is a great deal of truth to the old saying that anything you don’t use, you lose. I took Spanish when I was in high school for two terms. I wasn’t great, but I passed the classes. When I left the classes, I was not fluent but could carry on a limited conversation in Spanish. Fast forward to five years later, and I couldn’t remember even 10 percent of the language that I learned. During those five years, I went into college, got a job, and became active in other activities that I chose to prioritize in my life. I did not need to speak Spanish, nor did anyone in my life that could not communicate with me in English, so I did not practice what I had learned. It did not become a part of me.
I am not one of those who believes that our language will die if we lose our fluency in it. I surely don’t believe that your being a Cherokee rides on whether you know the language or not. In this technologic age, I think the language will be preserved for generations to come. There are software programs out now that will speak to you and teach you the Cherokee language, similar to Rosetta Stone programs. Even so, I do think a significant segment of our culture will be lost if we continue to dwindle in the number of Cherokee people interested in carrying on the language.
I think that many people would like to learn the language but lack motivation. Priorities of day-to-day life – paying the bills, caregiving, etc. – get in line ahead of language learning in our lives. Many great educators and leaders in our Tribe have created tools, like the immersion programs, to provide the language to children and adults. The issue in the minds of those who graduate, I can only imagine, is “What now? I have got a working knowledge of the language, but beyond special gatherings and close friends and relatives, how will this benefit me in my day-to-day living?”
I recently discussed with some coworkers about the relevance of the language to the modern Cherokee people and some interesting thoughts came forward. We pondered what it might look like to incentivize language-learning as we do higher education. As a Tribe, we currently reward success in high education with monetary rewards (in addition to providing funding for the education). When our youth graduate from colleges, they receive documentation relevant to getting jobs in the real world, and they learn things that they put into practice. If I know that taking classes and learning my language will might provide short-term finances that would allow me to support my life and the lives of my family, and long-term benefit of getting a leg up on job opportunities, I will be much more likely to think that there is some relevance beyond the historical to my language.
Providing monetary incentives and education funding for language learning would provide the ability for those who make language a lower priority because of other necessities due to living needs to move language up on the priority list. Creating a meaningful certificate program that included changing the law to include a language preference or requirement in hiring and running for office would motivate us to learn the language. Setting in place an on-going evaluation process (a process similar to renewing your driver’s license) would provide an incentive to keep your understanding of the language current and to be proficient. Giving language a place in our hiring practices and election process would change the perception of language relevance in our modern Cherokee society and would be the beginning of making the Cherokee language a more commonly used public language.
Lastly, I understand the desire to have authority over and control of the use of the Cherokee language. It is fair and appropriate to designate an “official” position on the meaning, pronunciation, and creation of characters. These things are critical to the continuation of the language. But, when we regulate the use of language, through an approval process or censor the use of it in specific applications, we are stifling, not promoting, the use of the language.
Can you imagine the impact on communications if the federal government created laws restricting the use of the English or Spanish language without government approval? Survival of the language is dependent on the regular use of the language. Will we regularly butcher it and get it wrong? Absolutely. For me, it is better that we use it and get it dirty on occasion than to reside it in a glass case somewhere and only be used by special permission. People have spiced up and slanged their languages across the globe, because people were using it, communicating with it, and making it their own. That is how it becomes a cultural norm. That is how it lives and breathes and grows relevant. If it belongs in our modern culture, then turn it loose and let it be integrated. That is how you add value for the people to our language.