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.”


11/20/2015 10:30 AM
FORT SMITH, Ark. – The Fort Smith National Historic Site closed its visitor center on Nov. 18 until Dec. 2 for the installation of a new heating and air conditioning system. The new HVAC unit will replace an older, less efficient system. The decision to close is due to visitor safety concerns, dust, noise, and the heavy equipment used to install the new system. The visitor center will reopen at 9 a.m., Dec. 3. During the time of the closure, the park will conduct business out of the Frisco Railroad Station located at 100 Garrison Avenue. Services available to visitors at the Frisco Station location will include interpretive tours, the park’s orientation video, and bookstore sales. Entrance fees will be waived during the main visitor center closure, and National Park Service Park Passes will be available for purchase at the Frisco location. “Making the decision to close the visitor center for two weeks was tough, but it is the right thing to do for visitor safety and project efficiency. We have worked to provide as many services to the public and hope to make this a seamless transition throughout the project,” said FSNHS Superintendent Lisa Conard Frost. The Fort Smith National Historic Site is located in downtown Fort Smith. To access the free parking lot from Garrison Avenue, turn south on 4th Street and west on Garland Avenue. For more information on the park, call 479-783-3961 or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
Senior Reporter
11/09/2015 02:29 PM
WARNER, Okla. – Two Cherokee men are building on the success they had in 2014 with their “Birds of the Cherokee Nation” calendar and are offering a 2016 version. The calendar consists of photographs of area birds and their Cherokee names in the tribe’s syllabary. Jeff Davis, of Warner, and David Cornsilk, of Tahlequah, collaborated on the calendar. Cornsilk researched the Cherokee names for the birds and Davis provided the photographs. “Last year’s calendar was very well received. This year’s calendar features 14 different birds. I’ve had numerous people thank me for publishing it and said they were looking forward to this 2016 edition,” Davis said. Because he descends from the Cherokee Bird Clan, Davis said, as a photographer, birds are some of his favorite subjects. Davis, who is also an artist and descendant of Principal Chief John Ross, said a reason for doing the calendar in 2014 was to help promote the language. When living in Kenwood in Delaware County, Cornsilk said he listened to Cherokee speakers talk about birds and the meaning of their names. He said he noticed the older speakers knew a lot of birds’ names but younger speakers knew hardly any. Out of concern for the Cherokee language, Cornsilk began collecting bird names in Cherokee for a book he thought he would write. He then decided to collaborate with Davis, who already had local bird photos, to make the calendar. Davis said many Cherokee speakers just use the word jee-squa, which means bird, for every bird. He said he hopes the calendar helps people learn how the Cherokee names of different birds living in northeastern Oklahoma. Each bird in the calendar has a Cherokee syllabary and English phonetic name, as well as an explanation of what the bird means to the Cherokee. On the calendar’s back cover is a copy of the Cherokee syllabary to help translate the bird names and the months in Cherokee listed with the photos. Also included in the calendar is a list of moons associated with each month and what Cherokee beliefs are associated with each moon. Cherokee translator William Eubanks compiled those beliefs in the 1890s, and Cherokee linguist Lawrence Panther translated the calendar’s name. The calendars are available for $10 at the Cherokee Nation Gift Shop, Cherokee Heritage Center Gift Shop, and the Spider Gallery in Tahlequah. By mail order, the price is $12.95 each, which includes shipping. PayPal or postal money orders are accepted. For PayPal send payment to <a href="mailto:"></a>, and to mail payment, send to: J. Davis, P.O. Box 492, Warner OK 74469.
Senior Reporter
11/09/2015 01:41 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee National Youth Choir is releasing a new Christmas music CD and will be performing songs from it at two concerts in November and December. “Cherokee Christmas” can be purchased at all Cherokee Gift Shops, at the concerts or by calling CNYC Co-Director Kathy Sierra at 918-453-5638. The CD has 12 songs that were recorded this past summer. “We are doing all styles of music from ‘Up On the Housetop’ and ‘Silver Bells’ to ‘O Holy Night,’” CNYC Co-Director Mary Kay Henderson said. This is the third Christmas CD the choir has recorded. The previous one, “Comfort and Joy,” was released in 2006. [BLOCKQUOTE]The choir’s CD release concert will be at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17 at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame at 401 S. Third St. in Muskogee. This event is free and open to the public. A second concert will be at 7 p.m. on Dec. 15 at the Wagoner Civic Center located at 301 S. Grant in Wagoner. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased by calling 918-485-3414. The choir also will be performing on Dec. 5 at the lighting of the Courthouse Square in Tahlequah. The CNYC is made up of 40 Cherokee youths from northeastern Oklahoma communities. Members perform traditional songs in the Cherokee language. It was founded in 2000 as a way to keep Cherokee youths interested in and involved with language and culture. “I have been with the choir since 2003. I love the kids. Kathy (Sierra) started with the choir in 2000 as a parent and has been with them ever since,” Henderson said. She said the choir gets requests “literally every day” to perform somewhere in the area. Auditions for new choir members will be held Jan 5. Candidates must be in sixth through 11th grade, a CN citizen, willing to learn Cherokee and attend weekly rehearsals. Interested youth should call Sierra at (918) 453-5638 to schedule an audition time. Interest in the Cherokee language has been rekindled among young people largely through the success of the youth choir. Several area schools now use the choir’s CDs as learning tools, and other schools are interested in developing curriculum to teach Cherokee language and music. People may listen to samples and purchase CNYC music at iTunes by searching the music section with the phrase “Cherokee National Youth Choir.” The choir’s CDs are also available on
11/05/2015 02:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, the Cherokee Nation is hosting a Lunch & Learn lecture series every Monday throughout November. The series willfeature speakers on topics related to CN history, culture and government. The first presentation of the series held Nov. 2 was “History of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper” by Cherokee Phoenix Senior Reporter Will Chavez. The free series is open to the public and will be held at noon in the Tsalagi Community Room, 17675 S. Muskogee Ave. Attendees are invited to bring a sack lunch. The remaining presentations are: Nov. 9 “Natives and Major League Baseball” by Rob Daugherty, director of CN Community and Cultural Outreach Nov. 16 “History of the Cherokee Nation Marshals Service” by Shannon Buhl, CN marshal Nov. 23 “U.S. Marshals Museum” by Jim Dunn and Alice Alt, president and vice president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Nov. 30 “What is an Indian Tribe?” by the Cherokee Nation Office of the Attorney General For more information, contact Catherine Foreman-Gray at
10/23/2015 10:00 AM
CLAREMORE, Okla. – When Will Rogers returned to his Indian Territory heritage as a boy coming home from school, as a New York stage actor dropping in on his way across the country and as a famous star of the big screen, there was always a celebration. They were recorded in the Claremore newspaper and in Will’s daily and weekly writings. When he died in a 1935 airplane crash and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum opened on his birthday three years later, a group of his old friends, the Indian Women’s Pocahontas Club, vowed to especially remember him each year on his birthday. That memorial event has grown into “Will Rogers Days,” which Claremore is celebrating Nov. 4-8. The focus remains on the Will Rogers Memorial’s mission of “collecting, preserving and sharing the life, wisdom and humor of Will Rogers for all generations.” Admission to the Museum will be free Nov. 4-8, said Tad Jones, executive director. Visitors and members of the business community are encouraged to dress western during the event. During the four-day celebration, two events are devoted primarily to children with hands-on activities that will acquaint them with Will Rogers and his Cherokee family values. A birthday party, complete with cake, will be celebrated at the Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch near Oologah on opening day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Nov. 4, the 136th anniversary of Will’s birth. There will be music that Will loved so much, presented now by Oologah-Talala students, and trick roping by Kowboy Kal, a world champion roper who has mastered and will demonstrate some of Will’s tricks. Children’s Day at the Museum is three hours of activities at the Claremore Museum with school groups hearing Cherokee Storyteller Robert Lewis, playing old-fashioned games, learning to trick rope and spending time in the Children’s Museum. The annual parade is on tap for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 7 followed by a 4 p.m. lecture by Amy Ware, author of a new book “The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon,” in the Will Rogers Museum Theatre. New on this year’s schedule is a musical performance of “the Will and the Wind,” by Dr. Dale Smith, directed by Sherrell Daniel, retired educator. The cast of children from the Claremore area will be on stage in the Museum Theatre at 7 p.m. Saturday and again on Sunday at 2 p.m. The week will wind down with a celebration and dedication of Will Rogers Park at the museum from 2-4 p.m. The park, now the site of a Claremore city park, was once part of the property Will Rogers purchased for a home site and is now the home of the Will Rogers Memorial. All “Will Rogers Days” events are free and open to the public
10/19/2015 02:00 PM
CATOOSA, Okla. – More than $75,000 was awarded during the 10th annual Cherokee Art Market on Oct. at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa with the Best of Show prize going to artists Jackie Larson Bread and Ken Williams for their beadwork titled “Fit for An Arapaho/Blackfeet Dandy.” “This year’s artwork has been an exceptionally great representation of many different tribes and cultures,” Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said. It was the eighth year for Williams and 10th year for Bread. Williams is Northern Arapaho, and Bread is a citizen of the Blackfeet Tribe. Cherokee Nation citizens Troy Jackson and Karin Walkingstick were also honored during the event with separate awards. Jackson was given the Innovator Award for his sculpture “Industrial Warrior.” Jackson said he is grateful that he gets to wake up every day and do what he loves. Walkingstick was given the Anna Mitchell Award for her contemporary pottery piece “Midnight in Dogwoods.” Mitchell is credited with reviving the traditional southeastern Cherokee pottery art form. Walkingstick said this is her second year at the market and that she appreciated the award greatly. “It’s such an honor,” she said. Mitchell’s daughter, Tribal Councilor Victoria Vazquez, who is also a Cherokee National Treasure, said she and fellow Cherokee National Treasure Jane Osti, who were both taught by Mitchell, were proud that Mitchell’s legacy was moving forward along with not just Walkingstick but other artists who are also following in Mitchell’s footsteps. “We are thrilled that Karen has taken Southeastern traditional pottery and just moved it way out of the box. We are really, really impressed with what she is doing and what she will be doing,” Vazquez said. The Culture Keeper Award went to Joe L. Reano for “Serpentine Green Mosaic Cuff.” Reano is Santo Domingo Pueblo. According to Cherokee Nation Businesses Communications, the event brought more than 150 Native American artists from 50 tribes in areas of beadwork, pottery, basketry, textiles and sculptures. <a href="" target="_blank">Click here to view</a>all winners from the 10th Annual Cherokee Art Market. <strong>Cherokee Art Market 2015 Best of Class winners:</strong> Class 1 – Painting, Drawing, Graphics & Photography Linda Kukuk: “Pride” Class 2 – Sculpture Troy Jackson: “Industrial Warrior” Class 3 – Beadwork/Quillwork Jackie Larson Bread & Ken Williams: “Fit for Arapaho/Blackfeet Dandy” Class 4 – Basketry Ronni Leigh-Goeman: “The Great Law” Class 5 – Pottery Alvina Yepa: “Walatowa Way of Life” Class 6 – Textiles B Clarissa Riza: “Chilkat Child” Class 7 – Jewelry Toneh Chuleewah: “Grandmother Spider” Class 8 – Diverse Art Forms Ryan Lee Smith: “Tony Lama Large Mouth”