“Creating a Cherokee language momentum shift”:  A look at the Cherokee Language Master-Apprentice Program

by Oct 22, 2022COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments

Members of the CLMAP are shown with Cherokee speakers recently. Shown, left to right, front row – Moses Oocumma, Rachel Littlejohn, John Long, Maddie Welch, Charles Welch, middle row – Dawn West, Aaliyah Swimmer, Elnora Nations, Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, Lucille Lossiah, Nakoa Warrington, Tohisgi Climbingbear; and back row – Rachel Slee, Scarlett Guy, Amber Allen, Chi Shipman, Toby McCoy, and Tara McCoy. (Photo by Gabriella Thompson, KPEP electronic media coordinator)


Submitted by KPEP

The Kituwah Preservation & Education Program (KPEP) held the first master-apprentice program in 2006 with funding from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. The 10-week program was modeled after Leanne Hinton, PhD.’s work, which was introduced at the 2005 Symposium held in Cherokee. The first program had limited success with the masters being paid and not the apprentices.

In 2018, KPEP began a new master-apprentice program, this time paying both the apprentice and the master in similar fashion to the Cherokee Nation (CN). The EBCI has worked closely with the CN’s language department who have had adult immersion programs for over six years. The program is designed to place a learner (apprentice) with a Cherokee speaker (master). The masters and apprentices strive to stay in the language all the time. The masters and apprentices do not limit their learning to the classroom alone. For example, masters and apprentices go on field trips and visit elders’ homes, visit historic sites, and learn to cook traditional foods for example.

Tohisgi Climbingbear, Master Adult Language consultant, and a member of the first cohort started as an intern about four years ago.

When asked about his experience in the program, he replied, “I love it.” His language skills prior to starting the program were non-existent beyond saying his name and siyo. Today, he attests his proficiency is at the advanced intermediate level. He credits his Aunt Rachel and his Grandmother Myrtle D. Johnson for inspiring him and having a sense of humor.



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He commented, “You can’t take yourself too seriously, and if you can’t laugh, you can’t learn the language.”

CLMAP (Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program) is led by Chi Utsesdi Shipman, Adult Language coordinator, who was also a member of the first cohort. Coming from a place of embarrassment because she did not know her language, she now encourages everyone to work on their language every day.

“We’re all busy, but you can take five minutes out of your day to learn a new word and use it until you know it.  As a Cherokee person, it’s [Cherokee language] is one of the most important things we have, it teaches us who we are, teaches us how to live, how to see things…it has changed my outlook on the world.”

For some apprentices, becoming a member of CLMAP was their first exposure to the Cherokee language. Amber Allen, who is in her second year with the program, grew up off the reservation and did not have a Cherokee speaker in her family. For community members that follow CLMAP on social media, she is the voice talent for ᎤᏁᎦ ᎤᏩᎾ (Uneg Uwan). She, along with her peers, create entertaining short videos that they write, produce, and publish as a way of giving back to the community.

It is the desire to give back to the community that led Tara McCoy to become an apprentice. She shared, “I’ve always wanted to learn my language…I wanted to learn and hopefully I will be able to give back with classes.” She is employed by the Ray Kinsland Leadership Institute and coordinates the Right Path program. Her employer has invested in her learning by allowing her to be in the program and not use her leave and maintaining her full-time status.

This type of arrangement between the employer and the apprentice is promising. There have been interested parties who wanted to join the program but could not leave their jobs, benefits, and tenure. Currently, the apprentices are grant-funded positions with less than 40 hours a week. There is a renewed sense of hope and affirmation for the apprentices with the passing of Res. No. 410 (2022). On Thursday, Oct. 20, Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed ratified the resolution, which creates 28 full-time apprentice positions. Fourteen of those positions are dedicated to the Dawonisi program in Snowbird and the remaining 12 will be housed at KPEP.

What does this mean for the apprentices? For Dannenah Calhoun, who joined the program in August, she will be able to provide for her family. She commented that following her last paycheck, she was 13 cents in the negative. It was the low pay and hours that led to discussions last year between Bo Lossiah, Curriculum and Instruction supervisor and Chief Sneed and with Bo Taylor, Snowbird/Cherokee County Culture and Language Program manager.

In his address to CLMAP apprentices and masters, Chief Sneed credited both men for bringing their concerns to him. Chief Sneed thanked the learners and the speakers for making the commitment to learn, what many have cited as one of the most difficult languages. He spoke to the compensation process and thanked Lossiah and Taylor for advocating for raising the pay for the learners. “Thank you all for what you’re doing, this is going to be historic. None of this is possible without you all. Each one of you is leaving a legacy.” He also credited Dakota Bird, who wanted to join the program but did not want to lose her tenure and employment status.

Scarlett Gigage Guy began her language journey in August and commented, “The increase in pay is affirmation for the students being with the elders…and the pay will encourage more people to apply.”

Utsesdi commented on the passing of the Resolution, “I hope to see people beating down the door to get into this program. I see the people going through now, going on to be language leaders in their community.”


Get to know the members of the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program:

My name is Toby McCoy and my parents are Tara McCoy and Jerry Swimmer and I am of the CLMAP program with Kituwah Preservation and Education. I’m a first-year learner, and I want to teach the new first years that come through the program when I graduate.

“ᏏᏲ ᏂᎦᏓ, ᎤᎩᏗᏍᏕ ᏭᏕᎵᎬ ᏓᏆᏙᎠ!” Dawnenna West Calhoun is the 32-year-old daughter of John and Barbara West. She is the granddaughter of Maggie Armachain and the late John “Bull” Armachain & Donna and Ray West. She applied to this program to further her knowledge of her native language and is proud of how far she has come already in her growing ability to speak in the community to elders, her children, and her Ulisi!

ᏏᏲ ᎩᎦᎨ ᏓᏆᏙ. ᏔᎵᏍᎪ ᏔᎵ ᎢᏯᏆᏕᏘᏴᏓ ᏃᎴ ᎠᏂᏬᏗᎯ ᏥᏂᎩᎳ. Hello, my name is Scarlett Guy and I reside in the Painttown community. I am the 22-year-old daughter of Kelly Ravert and Les Guy and the granddaughter of Anne Holt and Mike Holt. In May 2022, I graduated from Duke University and I am now in my first year of the Cherokee Language Master Apprenticeship Program. Upon completing the program, I hope to bring the language with me wherever I go, whether that be in the workforce helping my community or in school furthering my education.

ᎡᏥᎵ ᏓᏆᏙᎠ. My name is Rachel Hicks Slee. ᏦᏍᎪ ᏔᎵ ᎢᏯᏆᏕᏘᏴᏓ. I am 32 years old. ᏥᏍᏉᎯ ᎣᏤᎰᎢ. I reside in the Birdtown Community with my husband, Michael, and our three children. ᏗᎬᎩᎦᏴᎵ ᎠᏁᎰᎢ ᎠᏂᏬᏗᎯ. My parents are Lavinia and David Hicks of the Painttown Community. I am in my first year with CLMAP. I chose to apply for the program for my family and future generations of Cherokee People. Upon completion of the program, I hope to return to teaching the Cherokee Language in some capacity.

Shi-yo, Nakoa Atsilaadoosgi Warrington digwadoida. Gei wahyohi nole gvgiyawi anikawi. Nvsgo nvk igwadetiyvda. Taliyani diniyohli. Melah nole Alitama dundoa. Agilishi, Atsini dundoa. Hello, my name is Nakoa Chiltoskie Warrington. I live in the Wolfetown community, and my people are from the Deer clan. I am 44 years old. I have two children, Melah and Tama. I have a grandson Atsini. My Parents are Kim Chiltoskie and the late Linda Reid Chiltoskie. I am the third oldest of my siblings. I have five sisters and four brothers. I obtained an associate degree in Early Childhood Development from the College of Menominee Nation. I am currently a first-year student in the Cherokee Language Master Apprenticeship Program. Upon completion, I would like to return to the workforce in a teaching capacity in which I can utilize the Cherokee Language skills I have learned to aide in preserving our traditional dialect.

My name is Tara McCoy and I live in the Birdtown community. I have three sons – Jay, Shane and Toby. I work at the Ray Kinsland Leadership Institute as the Right Path Leadership Specialist. I am and thankful and appreciative that my workplace is supportive and allows me to participate in CLAMP program as part of my job. I think that this is a giant step in showing leadership and true support for preserving our language. I am excited to be a part of the CLAMP program and hope to be able to learn and give back as much as I can. I appreciate my peers, teachers, and the Cherokee language speakers for helping us learn our language. Sgi

Taylor Wilnoty — I am 27 years old and live in the ᎠᏂᏬᏗ (Painttown) community with my husband, Lucas Watson and our three children Raylyn, Ayla and Elijah Watson. I graduated from Southwestern Community College with an AAS degree in Early Childhood Education in 2020 and I will be going back to school in the Sping 2023 to obtain my Bachelor’s Degree from Western Carolina University. This is my first year in the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program & I am very thankful I was selected to be apart of this year’s cohort. I applied to the program because I have always felt a strong responsibility to learn my language, culture and

traditions because that is what makes me Aniyawiya. I want to pass on these teachings to my children and the next generation of Cherokee speakers which is what I plan to do after I have graduated from the CLMAP program. I would love to one day work for the Kituwah Preservation & Education Program as a Cultural Archive & Resource Officer in the hope that I can do my part to keep our language alive.

My name is Aaliyah Swimmer (ᎠᎵᏲ), I’m 23 years old. I am from Waynesville but I live in Clyde. I have three dogs.  Their names are Gadusi, Losi, and Sdaya. I graduated from Western Carolina university May 2021 with a Bachelors in Professional Writing and Cherokee Studies. My parents are Josh and Ravonda Swimmer, I have a twin brother named Isaiah Swimmer. My paternal grandmother is Mary Sherill, my paternal great grandparents are Bootsie and Ike Swimmer. My maternal grandparents are Robert and Darleen Killian. I am a second year Adult Cherokee Language Learner interning for the CLMAP program. I am also an artist at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Center. Upon graduating from the CLMAP program I want to continue making content such as cherokee language puppet videos and childrens books to help outreach and futher educate the children of the New Kituwah Academy and the over all community of Cherokee language and culture. Sgi!

ᏏᏲ, my name is Amber Allen. I am 36-years-old and live in Waynesville with my three children. My mother and grandmother are Pamela and Nancy Conseen. I am a featured artist at the Stecoah Gallery and a Cherokee Language learner. I am in my second year of the CLMAP program. I have always had a love for puppetry, voice acting, and the Cherokee Language. With the program I have been able to develop puppet videos and shows to help teach and entertain children in the language. Along with the continuation of learner our language, I want to teach and reach more people through different media outlets. I hope to engage more children and adults into wanting to learn Cherokee language.