COMMENTARY: Making the language a priority

by Oct 7, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


What is your interest in the Cherokee language? And before we get into our typical race debate, because when decidedly Cherokee issues are discussed, there are those amongst us who get our hackles up when a non-Indian decides to have an opinion. The question is for everyone. Anyone should be able to express their views without being told this is none of their business. Now, it is up to the individual how much, if any, credence to give an opinion, but that would be true of opines from any person, not just those of non-native lineage.

In fact, there are many non-Indian people who respect and learn the Cherokee language more thoroughly and with greater interest than we do, as a whole. While we know it was how we spoke “way back when”, we don’t need it to function in modern society and many of our people think of it as a novelty or something to be put in an archive in a museum to be only looked at, examined, or spoken in ceremonies, and with some sort of expert approval.

We have watched as tribal officials and language proponents desperately plead with the community to get more involved and engaged in the language. Millions of dollars have been spent on language education facilities, teacher education, and public relations efforts. And while you might see a surge of interest when there is a focal push by the government to “learn and use”, once the promotion-of-the-week either shuts down or gets familiar among the people, things go back to business as usual and folks go back to the language they need to do business and communicate in modern culture, English.

Some of the promotional material that is pushed out to the community says to use whatever language you do know during conversations during your routine day. When I was in high school, I took two years of Spanish. I wasn’t great at it then. And now I remember a few words like “hola”, “manana”, “si”, and “gracias”. But my real sweet spot when it comes to Spanish is in ordering food. Burrito, fajita, and taco are my go-to words when communicating my sustenance needs. But I don’t use any of those words when I am out on the street much. I don’t need it. I can navigate my day completely fine with my English vocabulary and if I try to recall and speak the Spanish that I learned in high school, it slows progress down dramatically, even though my struggling gets a few laughs from my Hispanic friends.

If I happen upon someone who is more comfortable speaking Spanish than me (which is probably just about anyone who speaks it), we both get to experience the awkward moment when they rattle off a series of sentences in Spanish and wait for my response, which is primarily a rather dumb expression and an apology that I do not know enough to carry on a conversation; that I was just using what I know. Now, do those awkward moments prompt me to brush off my stored memories of language learning and hit the books again to try to wipe that dumb look off my face? Not really, because once the awkward moment has passed, I go right on with the day. The interaction is just a footnote, if even that, in my day.

It is sure and true that the Cherokee language is special and deserving of preservation. But even some proponents treat the language as something fragile and to be isolated from use. A law was passed, first by Tri-Council and then by our government, that public use of the Cherokee language on signs, in notices, and media must be approved by three language experts from a language consortium before the language may be used. It is hard to imagine a tool for everyday communication being put to a vote before it can be used. And that might be one of the reasons why, for many of us, our language is not used for everyday communication.

When you go to a foreign country, let’s say France, you might want to know a bit of their native language. If you want to eat, take a taxi or mass transit, or even something as simple as call room service because you are out of towels or a plunger, you are going to run into some issues if you can’t express it in their tongue because many of those folks grew up speaking French and didn’t, and don’t, need English to navigate their daily activities. They don’t have a museum to store it in and they don’t have a court that tells them how to use it.

I was at a medical non-profit service provider, taking a tour of their facility last week. In their client intake room, our host told us that they never know what language the client will be speaking in when they come to them for help. As she told us this, she rolled out what looked like a little blue robot. This “robot”, she said, was their “universal translator”. This device would sit in on conversations between the representative for the service provider and the client, and translate, for both the representative and client, so that each could be understood, and needs could be met. No prior language knowledge required.

Languages grow and evolve through use. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to language learning. The best way to get the language to be a priority for the community may be to make the language an essential piece of everyday life. As the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to strategize language reintegration for our people, we need to understand the difference between wants versus needs, and desires versus essentials. If we want language to resume a place in everyday life, we must find ways to incorporate it into our lives in a meaningful way.  Reverence for it will only get you so far in the battle to save it as a living language. Open and honest discussion must be sought from those who don’t use it, probed for the incentives that would stimulate them to use it, and seek to develop the programs that will reinvigorate the language and energize a new sense of urgency in the community.

If we treat the language like a novelty, that is what it will be. There is an old guard of tribal elders who spoke Cherokee as their first words, it was indeed their native tongue.  But they have been leaving us for the beyond at an alarming rate. And many now are learning Cherokee as their second language. And with some of the smarter folks among us, Cherokee might be their third or fourth language. Many people in our tribe have dedicated much of their lives to holding on to the Cherokee language. Their passion for the language is undeniable and their contribution to what it means to be Cherokee through their dedication to speaking and writing education is amazing and something to be celebrated. Their want for the language to be sustained is clear. For the language to be truly viable as a living language, the people, the community, must need it more than we want it.