COMMENTARY: Leaving a bad taste

by Apr 14, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


The Cherokee language is important. It is a treasure. It is a part of the characteristics of what it means to be Cherokee. Some have even insinuated that a tribal member’s very identity as a Cherokee rests on their knowledge of the language. It is considered part of the life’s blood of the community. To some.

Particularly since the casino began to generate financial stability and economic growth, funding for sustaining the language has been put on the front burner. Millions of dollars have been spent in the defense of preserving the written and spoken language; schools have been built, curriculums established, and promotional materials produced. Language proponents are emotional and passionate about its survival.

So, with all that, why is there still so much apathy among tribal members concerning the language? If you ask the average member on the street if they support the sustenance of the language, the majority will be totally behind it (in spirit). Then, ask those same folks if they can speak or write the language and they will say very little or not at all.

You see, in your day-to-day activities, it is highly unlikely that you have a need to use the Cherokee language unless you are involved in teaching it or have older family members who use it frequently at home.

You don’t need the language to communicate with coworkers. You don’t need the language to sit and chat with friends at Brio or to order a meal at the drive-through at McDonald’s. You don’t need the language at the barber shop or beauty salon. All your groceries can be found and purchased at Food Lion without giving a thought to the language. If you get pulled over by the police, it is very unlikely that you will not understand the officer if you don’t know the Cherokee language.

When you flip on the boob tube and switch to channel 28 for your latest edition of Tribal Council to see what is going on and what laws are being made for our people, 99.9 percent of the time, you will be able to understand every word from our leaders without the benefit of knowing Cherokee language. You will get the occasional translation from our language clerks, and some of the tribal members with things to present will do an introduction with their name and maybe where they are from with the language, then the rest will be done in English.

What would we do if, suddenly, it was mandatory for tribal members to speak the language to hold a job, order goods and services, communicate with our doctor, and speak to loved ones? I know folks who have gone overseas to countries where English is minimally spoken in mainstream society. They get books to study up on a few essential phrases, and many friends travel with interpreters, or they would not have a good time or be safe during their time away from home. That is what it is like when language is essential to a society or culture. If it was more than a short trip, my friends would have to make some serious life changes, including how they communicate, to survive in those countries.

Many of us treat the language like a treasured piece of Cherokee pottery or woodwork. We get a random piece or two of it (that appeals to us) take it out and dust it off occasionally, then put it back on the shelf. In many ways, our government has encouraged that behavior by making only certain people guardians of our language. Laws are in place that prevent the free use of written and oral words in governmental releases without the approval of a panel of language experts. A form must be submitted to get a formal affirmation or official translation before it may be used in print or on audio/video. While these types of institutions may keep the language pristine, they will also have the effect of discouraging people from using the language. Living languages evolve through use. They need exercise.

I had the opportunity to moderate a candidate debate several years ago and the subject of the language came up. Apparently, this candidate had attended a speakers’ gathering in one of the communities. She described the experience as a demeaning one. She didn’t know the language or knew very little of it. When she was approached by someone who could and she explained that she could not understand them, she was told that she really shouldn’t be there. She felt so out of place and excluded that she walked out of the meeting.

The advocates of language in our community have a tough row to hoe. They must find ways to inspire others to embrace the language, make it fun and exciting, and show the social significance of the language in a way that is not threatening and will attract folks like the candidate who was ostracized at that meeting. The fact that she attended indicated that she had the desire to know more about the language, but she didn’t feel that it was something that others wanted her to be a part of.

Force-feeding the language to the community would have disastrous results. It is just common sense to know that pushing anything on a person will meet with resistance. My granny used to feed me bitter medicine when I would get sick. She would tell me to hold my nose while she poured it in. Didn’t make me want or like it any better. And if she hadn’t been standing over me, I would have just lived or died with the sickness because there was no way I was going to voluntarily drink that stuff. Granny would add sugar to the tablespoon of medicine to make me want it. No dice. I could taste the sugar but that taste never overrode the bitterness. And for some reason, the sweet taste would go away long before the bitter taste. Now, on the flip side of that, when granny wanted to give me a treat, she would put three or four heaping tablespoons of sugar in a glass of milk and add a drop or two of vanilla extract, making sort of a poor man’s milkshake. You couldn’t keep me away from that stuff and that was always my first request when I stayed with Granny.

At the most recent town hall meeting, one topic of discussion was the Cherokee language. An encouraging note from the Cherokee Language Program was that they are looking at more ways to make the language accessible to those who wish to pursue it. The program director mentioned collaborations with experts in information technology and Cherokee Nation to pool and exploit existing resources to make more ways available to the community to access and explore the language in their own way and at their own pace. It was also stated that those who are at higher learning levels need to be supportive of those who are starting in the language.

Speaking of sugar, one of the subjects that came up was the idea of monetarily incentivized learning. Well, they said it was more like “pay people to take language classes” but, the same concept. There is not much that is more relevant today than personal economy. And if language learning can be tied to positive results in an individual’s personal economy, then you might have a winning tactic to engage many learners.

One language leader, referencing a strategic language group, stated “What does that look like (pay incentive for language learning), how would that work?  How do we put the information out there?  How do we evaluate people? We all feel that incentivizing it will be in our best interest. It will build that enthusiasm and help to structure it. I know that there are some people, me included, that feel you should learn Cherokee because it is who you are – shouldn’t have to pay you to do that. However, every one of us has responsibilities that we must take care of at the end of the day. ‘I’ve got kids. I’ve got a family. I’ve got communities to take care of.’ Ultimately, for us to come from a perspective of helping those individuals monetarily while they learn the language is helping our community overall.”

Punitive efforts to revitalize the language will doom the language. Mandatory pronouncements to use it will result in disdain for it. Weaving it into our everyday lives and making it relevant in the day-to-day in 2023 are the keys to the future of the language.

I once heard a speaker say at one of the Cherokee Fair events that the Cherokee language is so rich and filled with emotion that some things are impossible to translate into English. He said that everything seemed to have a deeper meaning when understood in the Cherokee speech because the language engaged the heart as well as the mind. Education and incorporation with positive, productive measures will widen the appeal of the language among our people. But each measure must have a purpose that is understood and accepted by both teacher and student. Otherwise, all we will be left with is a bad taste in our mouths.