Monolingual Cherokee speaker Mack Vann, 83, holds the start of a handmade bow on March 14 in the backyard of his Briggs, Okla., home. Vann is part of a dwindling population of Native Americans in Oklahoma who only speak their original traditional language. Tribal language departments are turning to fluent and monolingual speakers to help translate tribal words into English in efforts to preserve the languages. KRISTI EATON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tribes draw knowledge from monolingual speakers

04/08/2014 08:31 AM
BRIGGS, Okla. (AP) – Mack Vann sits in the living room of his single-story home in rural Oklahoma with the television blaring, a news reporter giving details of the latest grisly crime to hit the state.

But the 83-year-old Vann doesn’t understand most of what the reporter is saying. Vann, who speaks only Cherokee, instead focuses on the visitors to his home, many of whom know only a few simple words of Vann’s Native American language.

“Osiyo,” he says to his new visitors, the Cherokee word for hello.

Vann is part of a fading population of American Indians in Oklahoma who speak only their Native American language, no English. Though Oklahoma was once known as Indian Country and ranks second in the nation in the number of Native American residents, many of the tribal languages are endangered or vulnerable to falling out of use.

That’s what makes Native Americans such as Vann, one of an estimated 50 Cherokee monolingual speakers in eastern Oklahoma, all the more interesting: They have somehow preserved their cultural identity through decades of pressure to assimilate, and now tribal language departments are turning to them to help keep their languages alive for future generations.

“They’re living treasures,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker says, “and it’s folks like him we bring in to pick their brains and say, ‘OK, what do you call the white oak tree? What do you call the other medicine trees? What’s the Cherokee word for them? What’s the old word for them?’ And the more we can pick their brains and the more the translation department can put it down, the more we can put it in not only hardback but on the web or a platform (and) the closer we’re coming to not even losing words.”

The Cherokee Nation has been at the forefront of language preservation. In the last few years, the tribe’s language department has worked to get the language added to Microsoft Windows 8, Google Gmail, and Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Most recently, a dozen Cherokee speakers spent last year translating 150,000 modern English terms into Cherokee so people can use the language on Microsoft Office web apps including Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

To make all that happen, the tribe draws upon the knowledge of speakers such as Vann, a descendant of Andrew Ross, the brother of Cherokee Chief John Ross, who led thousands of Cherokees to Indian Country during their forced removal from the southeastern United States.

Vann, who grew up in Greasy, a predominantly Cherokee community in eastern Oklahoma, learned some English in school but dropped out after the fourth grade to help with the family farm and slowly lost the ability to speak it.

Now, he says, he’s too old to learn it. Instead, friends and family help him translate when he needs help. Vann, whose wife died several years ago, worked at the Cherokee Heritage Center for years and continues to sell handmade bows.

Speaking through a translator in the backyard of his Briggs home, Vann, a citizen of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, says he would like more children to learn to speak Cherokee. He speaks with two young children on a regular basis in hopes of helping them learn the language.

“Everybody is just changing their ways and not really concentrating on our culture,” he says.

And as more tribal citizens like Vann age, it becomes increasingly important for tribes to preserve their vast cultural knowledge.

In January, the Chickasaw Nation, another large Oklahoma tribe, announced the passing of their last monolingual speaker, Emily Johnson Dickerson, 93. Dickerson, who died at her Ada home in late December, was among only about 70 fluent Chickasaw speakers.

“Emily Dickerson was a treasured elder who held the Chickasaw language and ways of life close to her heart,” Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said in a statement. “This is a sad day for all Chickasaw people because we have lost a cherished member of our Chickasaw family and an unequalled source of knowledge about our language and culture.”


Senior Reporter
12/16/2014 02:17 PM
TULSA, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation was inducted into the Tulsa City-County Library Hall of Fame on Dec. 6 during a ceremony held at the Hardesty Regional Library. The honor is given annually to an individual or organization demonstrating leadership and exemplary contributions of time, talent and energy toward improving the library and its resources. The tribe was selected as the 2014 inductee for its partnership with the library to record the Cherokee language on computer software. The software allows TCCL patrons to learn to speak, read and write Cherokee on computers. “Since the library opened its American Indian Resource Center 15 years ago the Cherokee Nation has supported the center by providing presenters for educational program, as well as monetary donations for the library’s collections,” TCCL CEO Gary Shaffer. “Thanks to the hard work of the Cherokee Nation and the American Indian Resource Center, Mango Languages, which is one of our vendors that works with the library, will begin offering for the first time an indigenous language, the Cherokee language course, beginning in early 2015.” Shaffer added that the CN helped develop interactive lessons and provided speakers of the language to record the lessons. The lessons will be offered through a user-friendly language instruction tool on the library’s website, as well as 2,000 other libraries across the country. Accepting the award for the tribe were CN translators Anna Sixkiller and John Ross, Cherokee Language Program Manager Roy Boney, Cherokee Heritage Center Executive Director Candessa Tehee, Cherokee Nation Businesses Director of Strategic Investments Jay Calhoun and Tribal Councilors Cara Cowan Watts and Lee Keener. Sixkiller and Ross completed two chapters for the Mango Languages software. The chapters include audio recorded by Sixkiller and Ross and written lessons. Ross said he and Sixkiller worked with Mango personnel via Skype, which allows people to have conversations using a webcam and the Internet. “Anna and I worked with a linguist from Mango. We worked on a script in the Cherokee language, and we started translating greetings, gratitude and goodbyes. The second part was conversation on ‘how is the weather today,’ names, places, etcetera. When we completed the writing part we started recording,” he said. The project began in August and was completed Dec. 1. “Personally, I see this as an opportunity to teach the Cherokee language to non-Native communities and other parts of the world to learn our Cherokee language,” Ross said. “If the people like the Cherokee language, Mango would like to continue the translation and continue adding more. It all depends on how the Cherokee language is received by the public.” Boney said it is fitting the CN is working with the TCCL because the tribe has a long history of literacy. “Education has been one of our major goals as a people as long we’ve been a people. We had the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi (the Cherokee Female Seminary),” Boney said. “We’re proud of our literacy, and this project is in keeping with that. The Cherokee language, like most Native languages, is endangered. We don’t want to lose our language, so we use every tool possible that’s available to us to keep it. A project like this using this language learning software is pretty big thing for us. It provides people access to hear fluent speakers of Cherokee speaking the language.” Shaffer also thanked Ross and Sixkiller for their efforts. “It’s really a remarkable develop this. One of Tulsa City-County Library’s goals is that the library be a center for community, reading, life-long learning and access to information for all,” Shaffer said. “For the Cherokee Nation’s outstanding commitment and longstanding support of the Tulsa City-County Library and for its diligence to preserve its Native language, we are proud to induct the Cherokee Nation into the Library Hall of Fame.” Mango Languages can be accessed online for free with the use of a library card or by paid subscription. An app is also available for download on smartphones so users can hear Cherokee pronunciation at home. The website is <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
Senior Reporter
12/16/2014 08:24 AM
PARK HILL, Okla. – The Cherokee Heritage Center is inviting people to experience a new exhibit that is open through March 1. The “1710 Cherokee Hands-On Exhibit” features a sandbox with animal paw print pads that helps people learn how to identify animal tracks. It also has coloring pages, animal puzzles, a magnetic wall where children and adults can arrange color designs for baskets, a weaving wall with ropes to teach people how a basket is weaved, a “Be an Archaeologist,” section where artifacts can be uncovered and a pottery section with pottery dating to the 18th century. “This is the first time the heritage center has tried to do a complete hands-on exhibit. We want to do something different that we’ve done in the past, but we want to make sure it complements Diligwa, our ancient village, so every activity in here is hands-on, family friendly and teaches people about Cherokee history and culture in the 1710s,” CHC Curator Mickel Yantz said. He said the exhibit is really for all age groups and meant to give visitors a hands-on experience for the things seen in the Diligwa Village next door to the museum. Diligwa is a replica of 1710 Cherokee village that opened in 2013 on the grounds of the CHC. The outdoor living exhibit provides guests with an enhanced experience of authentic Cherokee life and history in the early 1700s. Diligwa is a name derivative of Tellico, a village in the East that was once the principal Cherokee town and is now underwater. Cherokee Immersion Charter School first grade teacher Helena McCoy said she brought her class to the CHC on Dec. 5 to experience the hands-on exhibit and expose her students to basket making and other Cherokee-made crafts. She said she also wanted to give her students the opportunity to observe the Cherokee history displayed in the museum. “We wanted them to have hands-on experience. They are making baskets right now, and they’re excited to learn about (basket) patterns and learn about animals by looking at their tracks,” she said. “Every chance we get we try to take them somewhere to do something different besides being in the classroom.” CHC Executive Director Dr. Candessa Tehee said grants from the Oklahoma Arts Council and the Oklahoma Humanities Council is funding the hands-on exhibit. “It sort of brings the Diligwa Village indoors. So, we have a number of activities that people can come in and put their hands on. Hopefully it gives people a little touch of culture, history and crafting,” Tehee said. For information about the CHC and its exhibits, call 918-456-6007 or 1-888-999-6007 or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
Senior Reporter
12/15/2014 08:35 AM
PARK HILL, Okla. – In his 38 years of working at the Cherokee Heritage Center, Tom Mooney worked on numerous projects and held various titles, but he retired on Dec. 5 as the center’s archivist. He began his CHC career as its historical registrar in 1976, the same year the Cherokee people ratified a new tribal constitution and 10 years after work began on the center. “I’ve enjoyed every year here. A lot of my life has been spent here. When you spend that much time some place you make a lot of friends. I’ve been very pleased all the years I’ve been out here,” Mooney said. He assisted people with genealogy until 2000, when he began overseeing the center’s massive archive. The archive includes books, newspapers, photographs, Cherokee Nation records from 1948-75 and donated papers from former Principal Chief William Keeler and many other former leaders and CN citizens. “When I started here there was file cabinet and that was basically the archives,” he said. “It’s just been the past few years that we’ve really gotten things squared away in our collections.” After helping with genealogy, he said he was glad to be able to concentrate on the archives, which now make up two rooms in the museum’s basement. The 66-year-old said his favorite document in the archives is a letter written by Ellen Whitmore, the first principal of the Cherokee Female Seminary, which opened in 1851. The CHC nearly sits where the seminary once did. The seminary burned down in 1887, and the center has as its centerpiece the three remaining brick columns of the seminary. “She’s writing her family. She’s been offered a job out here. She’s in Massachusetts, and she’s having to make this decision about whether to come out to Cherokee Nation or not,” Mooney said of Whitmore’s letter. “Today, it’s a big challenge for a girl to come from Massachusetts to Oklahoma to take a job. Back then it must have been horrendous.” The perils of traveling to Indian Territory by boat in 1850 down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River through Memphis and then through Arkansas on the Arkansas River and into Indian Territory and Tahlequah, where Principal Chief John Ross greeted her, tested her will. However, Mooney said she enjoyed her time leading the seminary. Documents such as Whitmore’s letter and others are being scanned and made into digital files so they can be accessed easier without damaging the original document. Mooney said before documents were scanned it was up to him “to remember where some box was” to access certain documents. [BLOCKQUOTE]In 2011, Mooney became a certified archivist through the Academy of Certified Archivists. He said at the time he took the certification test as a method of self-evaluation to see if he could pass the ACA test. CHC Executive Director Center Candessa Tehee said Mooney has been more than the center’s archivist. “He’s really been the backbone of the institution. He has so much institutional knowledge,” she said. “Tom built the archives. He started with basically nothing, and now we’ve got thousands of documents, and he has dealt with so many’s really amazing what he has been able to do with so little.” One challenge was dealing with flooding in the basement during heavy rains. Tehee said Mooney told her during those times he would sleep on a cot with his arm above his head and his hand touching the floor so when the water came into the basement and touched his hand he would know to get up and vacuum it before it reached the archives. “Tom has such a passion for the institution. He has such a passion for Cherokee history, Cherokee heritage, Cherokee culture that he has made innumerable personal sacrifices to be here as archivist to continue to safeguard this collection,” Tehee said. Mooney retired a day before his 38th anniversary, which fell on Dec. 6. On Dec. 5, Mooney’s coworkers gathered in the CHC’s museum atrium to honor him for his dedication to the archives and for being a friend. He was presented with an “Unbroken Friendship Mat” made from river cane and woven by Cherokee artist and coworker Betty Frogg. Under the mat, which was enclosed in glass and a frame, read: “Thank you for 38 years of your ‘Unbroken Friendship.’” His wife, daughter and grandchildren also attended the honoring ceremony. Mooney met his wife Robin when they both worked at the CHC. He said he would miss the people he worked with the most, but he would, of course, also miss the “old documents” with which he has become familiar. “It’s been a great place. I’ve enjoyed the ride,” he said.
12/14/2014 12:00 PM
VENORE, Tenn. – The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore is offering a beginning and an advance beginner Cherokee language class beginning Jan. 12. Classes will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Jan. 12, 19, 26 and Feb. 2. The cost of the class is $40 for all four evenings. Shirley Oswalt and Mary Brown, citizens of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian, will teach the class. The noted Cherokee linguist Sequoyah was born near the museum site in 1776. The mission of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, a property of the EBCI, is to promote the understanding and appreciation of the history and culture of the Cherokee Indians in Eastern Tennessee, particularly the life and contributions of Sequoyah. The museum collects, preserves, interprets and exhibits objects and data that support this mission. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, located on Tellico Lake, features video, electronic displays and exhibits from various periods of Cherokee occupation in the Tennessee Overhill area. Its gift shop offers for sale many Cherokee and Native American crafts and jewelry as well as books on Cherokee history and culture. People interested in taking this class should contact the museum at 423-884-6246 to reserve space. In case of inclement weather, call the museum ahead of time to determine if the class is meeting.
12/14/2014 07:59 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – To honor the Dec. 14 birthday of Ned Christie the Cherokee National Prison Museum is temporarily showcasing his rifle and gun. Known as a statesman, Christie was a blacksmith and gunsmith by trade, who in 1885 was elected to the Cherokee Nation Council. His resentment towards the federal government was apparent, and he became well known for his intense speeches that promoted tribal sovereignty. While in town to serve a warrant on May 4, 1887, U.S. Deputy Marshal Daniel Maples was shot and killed. Because Christie was seen in the vicinity, he was accused of having been the shooter. Since Maples was a United States citizen, jurisdiction for the crime fell to the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas under Judge Isaac C. Parker. Refusing to submit to a “white man’s court,” Christie sought refuge at his home in Wauhilla. Five years later, deputy marshals shot and killed him. Twenty-six years after his death, a man claimed to have witnessed the shooting and identified Bud Trainor as the murderer, not Ned Christie. His account, published in an article that ran in the Daily Oklahoman, exonerated Ned Christie. Today, Christie’s story is told at the museum, which includes the Cherokee National Prison, which was the only penitentiary building in Indian Territory from 1875 to 1901. It housed sentenced and accused prisoners from throughout the territory. Built of sandstone rock, the prison was made to hold the most hardened and dangerous prisoners. The interpretive site and museum, located at 124 E. Choctaw St., show visitors how law and order operated in Indian Territory. The historic site features a working blacksmith area and reconstructed gallows. Today’s museum offers stories of Cherokees and how they were perceived as outlaws in the Cherokee Nation, while others were revered as patriots. For information, call 1-877-779-6977 or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
12/13/2014 02:00 PM
TULSA, Okla. – Two Native American artists recently earned a grant of $40,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to go towards the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa. The artists, Shan Goshorn and Sarah Sense, both work with basketry and their works will be in the upcoming exhibit, “Intertwined: Stories of a Splintered Past.” The council will receive an Art Works grant from NEA to support the event. “We couldn’t be more excited than to receive the support of the NEA for such an important project in our community,” said Hardesty Arts Center Director Kathy McRuiz. “Both Goshorn and Sense are at pivotal moments in their artistic careers. They are known worldwide for their work addressing issues of indigenous peoples.” According to reports, Goshorn is a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokees Indians and lives in Tulsa. She creates her baskets by using copies of historical photographs and documents that are cut into strips then woven into the baskets. Her work addresses topics of history, identity, hope and betrayal. Her baskets have brought her international fame. Sense is of Chitimachi/Choctaw heritage and is from California. Sense features original basket weaving methods to reflect the commonalities of indigenous peoples. The exhibit will be on display from May to June at the Hardesty Arts Center.