KPEP forges connection with Cherokee Nation Language Department

by Nov 2, 2023NEWS ka-no-he-da0 comments


One Feather Reporter


TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Kituwah Preservation and Education Program (KPEP) returned home recently from a fruitful professional development trip to Tahlequah, Okla. KPEP, including the New Kituwah Academy (NKA) and the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program (CLMAP) departed from Cherokee, N.C. on the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 24 and returned on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 28, bringing home new connections with the Cherokee Nation Language Department.

38 KPEP administrators, staff, speakers and language learners, including 2023-24 Miss Cherokee Scarlett “Gigage” Guy, tour the Durbin Feeling Language Center in Tahlequah, Okla. (Photos courtesy of Michelle Long)

The Cherokee Nation Language Department holds its headquarters in the Durbin Feeling Language Center, housing their Cherokee translation office, language classes, their CLMAP, and their Cherokee Immersion School. The center is named in honor of the late Durbin Feeling, a renowned Cherokee Nation linguist often referred to as a modern-day Sequoyah. Feeling is credited with writing the Cherokee dictionary and beginning the process of Cherokee language Unicode for laptops and smartphones.

KPEP toured the Durbin Feeling Language Center with 38 people, including teachers and staff from NKA, three EBCI (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) fluent speakers and several students from EBCI CLMAP. Seven NKA administrators and teachers visited the center in April, beginning the relationship to make this larger trip in October. Administrators and staff at the Durbin Feeling Language Center were excited to see familiar faces from NKA again and meet new colleagues in the very small world of Cherokee language immersion.

Crystal Carpenter, principal of NKA Elementary, was thankful to forge connections with another Cherokee language immersion school.  “New Kituwah Academy is very specific in what we do. There is not traditional professional development that we are able to attend that is beneficial because we are so specific in that we are a Cherokee language immersion school. We can get professional development in math, science, subjects like that, but it is not Cherokee language specific,” she said. “Our goal was to be able to provide professional development for our staff, but also to be able to make a connection between our staff and the Cherokee Nation staff. The Cherokee Nation Immersion School is the only school, probably in the world, that does something so similar to what we do. That partnership was hugely important for us because it gives our staff a professional learning community to exchange ideas, information and curriculum resources.”

Carpenter provided an example of a NKA kindergarten teacher collaborating with the kindergarten class in Oklahoma on an upcoming Kahoot game. “That is an immediate result of this trip. We’re establishing this exchange of information, and we’re also establishing future visits. We have the Cherokee Nation Immersion School scheduled to come out here in March and May.”

Tavish Lambert Brown, NKA Early Childhood supervisor, shared that her favorite part of the trip was being able to bring along fluent speakers Rosie Sneed, Stacy Wolfe, and Stacy Rogers, who also work in NKA Early Childhood.

EBCI fluent speakers, left to right, Stacy Wolfe, Rosie Sneed, and Stacy Rogers.

It was Sneed’s first trip to Oklahoma, where she got to meet with other fluent speakers and teachers at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School. While on the trip, Stacy Wolfe was recorded speaking Cherokee on the Cherokee Nation’s language radio station.

Michelle Long, Family Partnership/Lead Teacher, was impressed with the language hub of the recently completed Durbin Feeling Language Center. “I’ve been to Oklahoma many times, but this was my first time seeing the new center. All the Cherokee language programs are under one roof and in arms reach of each other. Nowhere in the world is there something like that—a space for all generations to speak and learn together,” she said. “I want us to get on that same page here. That’s the heart of their community. You can’t find that anywhere else. When we arrived, they welcomed us and told us that since we have visited their facility, it was now our place, too.”

Long was also impressed with the consistent use of Cherokee syllabary throughout the center. “Everything there was in syllabary, which is something I love, and I feel like that’s how it should be. If someone couldn’t read it, then that was on them. They have to learn how to read it. I took lots of pictures of their signage and posters all in Tsalagi.”

Brown and Long shared the sentiment that there was not just a curriculum connection made, but a reunion of Cherokee people. “We were able to reconnect over the language. It’s powerful and it’s emotional,” Brown said.

Long was particularly moved by the connection of the EBCI and Cherokee Nation fluent speakers. “We always hear people talk about the different dialects. First language speakers don’t harp on dialects. We recognize the differences because we’re still learning. They just speak to each other and understand each other. Our speakers were speaking to their speakers, and they never stopped to say ‘Oh, you said that different.’ There was no discussion of dialect. They just spoke to each other,” Long said.

“As a second language learner, that is cool to see because it teaches us that it doesn’t matter how they say it if you understand it. It’s all one language to me. Whether it’s Western, Eastern, Snowbird, or Big Cove, it’s still Cherokee.”

The group also attended a church service, which was led entirely in Cherokee language. “A group of our teachers have been singing together, and they got up and sang at church and it was beautiful. There was no dialect barrier. We all sang in the language; we knew the songs and sang along,” Brown said.

Left to right, NKA teachers Chasity Bark and Abigail Long, Cherokee Nation teachers Rachelle Johnson and Wahnema Holcomb, and NKA teacher Shay Arch.

Carpenter shared that it was refreshing to hear Cherokee language sang and spoken at the church service in a space separate from school. “To see somewhere outside of the school where the language was so predominant was definitely an experience for me,” she said.

Carpenter remarked the prevalence of Cherokee language in the Cherokee Nation’s speaker’s village. “Their speaker’s village is an area adjacent to their immersion school where they have seven apartments. The apartments are filled with first language speakers. There’s one language family that lives there. The family is a ‘language nest,’ with the mother, Wahnema Holcomb, working at the school and the children attending,” she said.

“It is unique in that Cherokee is the predominant language in that community. It’s an interesting way for them to experience Cherokee in their daily lives. I think that even if Cherokee starts at the school, it should extend into the community and everyday life. It shouldn’t only live at the school. We want our students to continue to speak when they leave our doors as much as possible.”

The speaker’s village has plans for fifty more apartments, as well as a chicken coop and a stickball field.

NKA teacher Kelly Murphy was pleased to meet with other teachers who shared the experience of working in Cherokee immersion. “We have similarities. We go through the same struggles. Being in Cherokee language immersion, you can sometimes feel secluded. It’s nice to have someone that relates to you. It lets you know that you’re not alone,” she said. “This trip relit the fire within me for what we do here.”

Murphy also attended the trip in April, where she picked up the idea to incorporate stomp dances in her curriculum. “The girls are shaking shells and the boys are learning the songs. It instills the values of stomp in them, to be respectful and responsible,” she said.

The speaker’s village, a Cherokee language community adjacent to the Cherokee Nation Immersion School.

Carpenter is proud of the immediate impact their Oklahoma trip is having for her staff and students. “Being able to see something that we’ve worked hard to plan come to fruition and be beneficial to the staff and filter down to the students is very rewarding.”

NKA Superintendent Kylie Shuler is thankful to the EBCI executive administration and the parents of NKA for allowing this unique opportunity for professional development. “This was a great experience for our staff.  I would like to thank Executive for allowing us to take the trip, and I would also like to thank the parents for their understanding with the school closing. This really was an incredible learning and team building opportunity for New Kituwah Academy.”