COMMENTARY: Respect our language.  Respect our elders.

by May 14, 2021OPINIONS



“A platform for contemporary Native American Writers to share their thoughts and ideas”


As I look at the various issues at hand regarding language revitalization among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), the sense of dread overwhelms me. I am reminded daily of the arduous task of trying to help or find ways to protect the language for future generations. However, as I speak about an uncertain future, I realize that our present is what is most uncertain.

Recently, the number of fluent speakers has made its presence among the Tribe, 188. What a small number for a Tribe tracking to surpass 16,000 members. This number, of course, equates to less than 1 percent of the Tribe being fluent speakers. (however, the number is also misleading as we are uncertain of those 188 who are actually capable or willing to participate in the preservation or revitalization efforts, discussions on how to bridge gaps with our youth, how to make the language more accessible).

This brings to mind the role of our speakers. They are underutilized but also overworked, and have become translation/neologism machines that, unlike mechanical machines, are human beings and not something replaceable or available to be upgraded. Though, as a Tribe, we flaunt programs and initiatives despite not having significant data to show improvements. These endeavors nonetheless are passed off as meaningful efforts that will one day be effective. But what about the now?

As I recall, during my time as a Cherokee language educator, I was constantly creating materials for classes. I was a part of many and how all of this will, in turn, create a new generation of educators and possible speakers. However, my focus on the newer generations led me to neglect the importance of now. This does not just include our elders but includes all of us actively pursuing language revitalization and preservation.

One key to refocusing our attention is to stop acting like our language is dying and stop putting the fear of death on our speakers. As we continue to progress to the new age of technology and new media, where does that leave our speakers? Most of our speakers are later in life, but most of our attention focuses on newer forms of technology which are often marketed for our youth. I am not saying focusing on new technology, or the youth is bad, but this focus leaves out the very people we need to help fix our language issues. This means, for many speakers, they are not truly going to experience their hard work being meaningfully used because it sits in spaces only attainable for those capable of accessing it.

There is also the problem of their participation in creating materials for newer technology.  Do a deep dive into what technological endeavors we have done in the past, and I am sure obsolete or unused materials that never graced the light of day will turn up. When it comes to technology, it is an ever-changing market. I do not want to waste any more of our speakers’ valuable time using them to record with promises of a better tomorrow. Most of these promises just become a part of developmental purgatory. Countless hours have been wasted feeding this purgatory. These efforts have to sit in limbo, never knowing when or if they are going to help. Even if some are published or archived, they are often locked away from all to hear or use.

Universities and institutions often become gatekeepers to our ancestors’ voices. I do not want this to continue. But before that can change, we must develop effective ways to become gatekeepers. Yes, technology is a vital component in this, but it is not the only component. We must be integral to the development and process of archiving, documenting, and creating spaces/reclaiming domains. We must put true action and meaningful involvement into the language. There has to be more understanding about where our language is and give real hope, not some generic epilogue in repetitive documentaries that only glorify the travesty of our “dying language.” This is why there has to be an effort to recognize that our language is not dying, and when the last fluent speaker goes, we should not assume that the language is gone for good.

This is a call to all that we need to do better now and do better for our speakers. The end is not definite; that only happens when definite parameters are put on it. Our spirits are not tied to this world, and once untethered, they are free to cross all worlds and encompass all things. Our language is the same way. It is not tied to individual vessels; it encompasses all things. We just have not freed it to do so. We abuse it; we keep it tied down in colonial structures, political strife, and individual greed.

Getting our speakers to sign a book or translate a t-shirt is not an acceptable way of getting to a solution. We do not need pity from documentarians/interviewers or need to help out part-time language enthusiasts. Our speakers are not test subjects for researchers, nor are they beasts of burden. Our speakers have allowed ourselves to be arrogant Indigenous people without any of us, the non-speakers, putting in any of the work. They were and are the ones who keep a connection to our ancestors, and they are the only ones who truly know what it is like to be Cherokee, Aniyvwiyahi. I am tired and frustrated, but I am also hopeful. I hope that our tribe will finally recognize the language for what it is. It is our connections. It is our guidance. It is us.



Tsegilayi Ayuini 

Jakeli Swimmer is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from the Big Cove community who is currently living in Lawrence, Kan. finishing up his M.A.  degree in Indigenous Studies at the University of Kansas, with an emphasis in language reclamation and maintenance. Previously, he spent over six years working as a Cherokee language educator at both Cherokee Central Schools and Graham County Schools.