By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
A group of Cherokee second language learners showed a board containing a list of all of the known Cherokee fluent speakers of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) during Annual Council on Monday, Oct. 28. The board contains 205 names, the number as of Oct. 24.
“We’re losing an average of 19 speakers a year,” said Sharri Pheasant, a Cherokee second language learner, who presented legislation in Annual Council on Monday dealing with the preservation of the language.
The legislation was passed by Tribal Council unanimously and states that $15 million will “be allocated to the revitalization needs of the Cherokee Language programs for the preservation and sustenance of our Cherokee Language…”
Pheasant was joined in submitting the legislation by fellow second language learners Matt Tooni, Amber Ledford, Cree Rockwood, as well as Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha.
“If we don’t have our language, can we still say that we’re Cherokee?” said Pheasant.
The legislation comes on the heels of a stark declaration by Tri-Council – consisting of leaders of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes – in late June that the Cherokee language is in a State of Emergency.
During that Tri-Council meeting in June, held at the Kituwah Mound, Roy Boney Jr., a Cherokee Nation citizen, noted there are just over 2,100 identified fluent Cherokee speakers in the three tribes (EBCI, Cherokee Nation, and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians). “Out of the roughly 400,000 federally recognized Cherokees, that’s less than 0.5 percent of the population…the language is our birthright as Cherokees. We’re at a really critical juncture with our language.”
The second language learners who addressed Council on Monday are associated with the CALL (Cherokee Adult Language Learners) program.
EBCI Beloved Woman Myrtle Driver, a fluent speaker, praised the program and its students. “It’s been a pleasure to work with this adult immersion group. I’ve never seen a group of people that really wanted to learn the language, and I applaud them. I appreciate them because Cherokee is not an easy language to learn. It’s very complex.”
She added, “Today is the day that we support any group or any learner that wants to learn the language. We can’t put it off anymore.”
Tooni, a CALL student, has begun teaching basic Cherokee language classes in the community to help share and spread his knowledge. He said on Monday, “We’ve lost precious time because we deny ourselves the ability to see the actual reality of what’s happening around us.”
He implored EBCI tribal members, “Learn as much as you can. The days of thinking ‘I’m too old to learn’ are over as well as any other excuse that we may have. It’s done with.”
Tooni said preservation of the Cherokee language has to be a group effort, and he referenced the concept of Gadugi. “That can’t stand as an idea if we just come together during catostrophes and tragedies. It’s an all the time thing, and this language is a part of that.”
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed said he supports the idea 100 percent and noted, “It’s not just a conversation about language preservation. Oftentimes, we begin the conversation and then it dies on the vine, and I think that the energy and the passion and certainly the heart and the spirit of this group of young people who are energized not only around language preservation but language proliferation.”
He did ask that a plan be in place so he can know what to implement. The submitted version of the legislation called for a new division to be developed, but it was amended on the floor to simply allocate the funding. It was decided that a comprehensive plan will be developed after the Language Symposium scheduled for November that will include everyone involved in language preservation efforts.
Swimmer said during discussion on the legislation, “It’s sad to say, but we are going to lose our speakers one day, and, the thing that is still going to be here, everybody knows, is technology. “And, what we don’t have is people who are working continuously trying to save the language by preserving it and recording these fluent speakers every time they talk.”
Big Cove Rep. Richard French said he fully supports this effort and all efforts to save and revitalize the language. “I think we all know what we need to do and today’s not the day to put something on hold. Today’s the day to move forward.”