New Cherokee Language Choir finding their tune

by Mar 16, 2023A&E, COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments


One Feather Reporter


Many Monday afternoons are unremarkable, but on this particular Monday Seli and Geyadi were moving a mile a minute.

Are there enough chairs? Oh, what about sheet music? How much Cherokee do you think they know?

Garret ‘Geyadi’ Scholberg leads the Cherokee Language Repertory Choir in singing the ‘u’ Cherokee syllable. (JONAH LOSSIAH/One Feather photos)

The excitement of March 13 was coming from a very good place, though. It marked day one of the new Cherokee Language Repertory Choir. Sara ‘Seli’ Hopkins and Garret ‘Geyadi’ Scholberg are the directors of this new effort. They had no honest idea about how many people were going to show up for day one, but they were clearly overjoyed with a splash of anxiety.

More than 20 people sat in the semi-circle in front of a piano. The idea for this choir goes back to the relationship that the two directors have shaped over the last few years.

“Garrett and I are both music teachers. I used to be here at the [New Kitwuah Academy]. We’ve always had this dream,” said Hopkins.

“We very briefly had a Cherokee language choir at [Western Carolina University], but it was more like a Cherokee barbershop quartet. There were like five of us. We just did it for one semester, and it just didn’t continue. But we always had this goal of making it bigger and doing more with it. Garrett has a real interest in shape note singing. I have an auxiliary interest in shape note singing.”.

She said this new opportunity at a Cherokee choir has come from a separate project.

“I have been working, research-wise, in producing the Sounding Spirit series out of Emory University. We are doing a critical edition of the Cherokee singing book, which is this 1846 singing book that has all of these music theory concepts translated into Cherokee. A bunch of hymns too. I’ve been working on that for two and half years.”

Scholberg is the activity teacher at the New Kituwah Academy and has a history with shape note singing. Pairing that with the fact that the two have been friends for years, Hopkins knew there was only one person that was perfect to add to this project.

“I have been sharing that work with Garrett. We sort of were like, we really need to put this into practice. So that it’s not just this academic project to look at these songs, but to really get people singing them again.”

According to Hopkins and Scholberg, the goal of this choir is revitalization. They will be singing songs in the Cherokee language while also learning about these older singing traditions.

Sara Hopkins shows the choir a chart of shape notes with Cherokee syllabary.

“This whole tradition is endangered. Not just the Cherokee language component, but the singing tradition is endangered – somewhat at least. There are a whole bunch of people that keep shape note singing alive, but maybe not these particular tunes,” said Hopkins.

Scholberg said that they want to do this the right way. He said that means incorporating the language in ways that get people excited but is still accessible.

“A goal I really have is to teach people the syllabary through the music. Because it’s all in the syllabary and I feel like it’s an easy thing once you get the hang of it. It’s really intimidating at first because it’s a lot of syllables. But I know people can do it,” said Scholberg.

On the first day, Scholberg could be seen holding up different symbols from the Cherokee Syllabary. To the director’s delight, most of the singers already had the base syllables in their repertoire. Hopkins doubled down on this idea of learning through choir practice, saying that has come up in her research.

“I know traditionally a lot of people actually learned to read the syllabary through singing hymns. This is in Margaret Bender’s book; she talks about this a little bit. But because a lot of times the singing, people knew these tunes by ear…then they could pick up the Cherokee hymn book, the one that was just words. They could then read along to it because they already knew it, so it was a way they would be learning to read the syllabary.”

Scholberg said that he is excited to get these songs back to Cherokee folks and sees this as great opportunity to react with an often forgotten tradition.

“We’re wanting to bring that memory back to this choir for the Cherokee people. Re-empowering them with knowing how their ancestors sang,” said Scholberg.

Hopkins insists that this choir is for everyone interested in the history and the language. She absolutely hopes enrolled members come in numbers but wants everyone to feel welcome.

“It’s open to everyone. Because, quite frankly, there would’ve been lots of crossover, probably, with non-Native communities in the area. It kind of set up the gospel tradition too. The gospel sings and stuff. If you look back at the accounts of the Fair, and there were all these singers. They actually had a singing competition at the Fair. All these different groups would come and sing with the Cherokee Indian Fair. It wasn’t just Cherokees singing Christian harmony, it was the whole region,” said Hopkins.

She continued by addressing how intimidating the Cherokee language can be. Hopkins says this is a safe place to extend your knowledge in the language without judgement.

Scholberg plays a key to help the choir find their pitch.

“I am all about things that get people using the language that don’t make them feel like their competency is being tested as a speaker. Because let’s face it, I’ve been learning for 15 years and if you sat me in here with a fluent speaker and tell me I can’t use English, I’m going to get really anxious. Even though I know a lot and I could probably get by in many ways. It’s difficult,” said Hopkins.

“Things like songs take away that pressure. You’re doing it in a group too. So, they’re learning the language. We’re going to be providing translations with the words and stuff too.”

Scholberg says that prior is experience with singing is great, but it’s not expected or needed. He said that there are bound to be gaps in knowledge, but he isn’t concerned about that. Who is the ideal type of person they want to come out?

“Folks that like to sing and that want to learn the language,” said Scholberg.

Hopkins said they want to have fun and learn. She said that everyone involved in this project, including the directors, would be learning constantly.

“I can’t sing shape notes, but we’re going to learn them in Cherokee. Even if we’re listed as directors, we’re still learning too. No one is coming in as an expert. Even if we have speakers that come, they probably aren’t going to know some of these tunes we’re learning. Everyone will have different knowledge. No one is less or more valuable as anyone else is. We’re going to do this together. There’s no quizzes, there’s no solos. There’s not going to be any calling anyone out.”

The Cherokee Language Repertory Choir is sponsored by the WCU Cherokee Language Program and the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program. They are currently meeting every Monday at 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The Choir will be alternating locations between the New Kituwah Academy and the Cullowhee Baptist Church. The idea of this is cast a wide net to anyone interested. Participants are not required or expected to attend practice at both locations, just whichever location is most convenient for them.

The next meeting will be in Cullowhee on March 20, then back in Cherokee on March 27, and so on.

Anyone interested in the choir can reach out to the directors directly. Sara Hopkins can be reached via email at Scholberg can be reached at