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.”


10/06/2016 08:15 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Congratulations to Nan Butler from Wellston for being the Cherokee Phoenix’s third quarter giveaway winner. On Oct. 3, Butler won four painted tiles by Cherokee artist MaryBeth Timothy of MoonHawk Art after Cherokee Phoenix staff members drew her name from approximately 980 entries. The tiles are 6 inches by 8 inches and titled “Bear Clan” with a bear, “Ancient Glory” with an eagle, “PeekaBoo” with a wolf and “Seven” or “GaLiQuoGi” with horses. Butler joins Wauneta Wine of Columbia, Maryland, and Dale Easky of St. Clair, Missouri, as the 2016 Cherokee Phoenix giveaway winners. Wine won a carving by Cherokee sculptor Matthew Girty on July 1, and Easky won a knife by Cherokee knife maker Ray Kirk on April 1. Entries can be obtained by donating to the Cherokee Phoenix’s Elder Fund or buying a Cherokee Phoenix subscription or merchandise. One entry is given for every $10 spent. The Cherokee Phoenix will hold its fourth drawing on Jan. 3 when it gives away beaded jewelry by Cherokee artist and Native Uniques owner Samantha Barnes. For more information regarding the giveaways, call Samantha Cochran at 918-207-3825 or Justin Smith at 918-207-4975 or email <a href="mailto:"></a> or <a href="mailto:"></a>. For more information on Native Uniques, go to or call 918-214-0030. For more information on MoonHawk Art, email <a href="mailto:"></a> or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
Media Specialist – @cp_rgraham
10/04/2016 12:00 PM
VINITA, Okla. – Eastern Trails Museum and Cherokee Nation officials on Sept. 24 opened the museum’s new CN addition with a ribbon-cutting and proclaimed the day as “Cherokee Day.” With funding provided by the Tribal Council and cultural artifacts donated by CN citizens, the museum, which opened in its current location in 1970, can now show the connection between the town of Vinita and the CN. Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said he was proud of the addition. “There’s always been Cherokee items at this wonderful museum, but lately the museum has focused on putting an emphasis on Cherokee history because Vinita is a Cherokee town. Vinita was built by Cherokees. It was certainly here before statehood,” he said. “The Cherokee Nation is just here today to help the museum and the town celebrate the opening of the new addition.” Hoskin, who is from Vinita, added that there are deep roots in the northern Cherokee community. According to, Vinita is located in Craig County and was established in 1871 by Elias Cornelius Boudinot, the son of the first Cherokee Phoenix editor, Elias Boudinot. The town was originally called Downingville after CN Chief Lewis Downing but was later renamed Vinita after artist Lavinia Ellen Ream Hoxie. It was incorporated in 1898, nine years before Oklahoma statehood. It was also the first town in the state to receive electricity. Eastern Trails Museum Director Kathleen Duchamp said she was excited about the addition and was glad to see Cherokees sharing their culture. “Cherokee Nation brought seven Cherokee National Treasures who demonstrated basketry, loom weaving, buffalo grass dolls, sculptures, pottery and traditional bow making to large, appreciative crowds,” she said. Duchamp said the exhibit tells the story of the region’s Cherokees and how they were the area’s important pioneers. Dist. 11 Tribal Councilor Victoria Vasquez said she was “thrilled” about the event. “I’m also thrilled I was able to help with Cherokee funds to make this Cherokee exhibit possible. It’s a permanent Cherokee exhibit, it’s brand new and it’s going to be here forever.” Vasquez, who also lives in Vinita, donated several items to the exhibit. She said she’s visited the Eastern Trails Museum since she was a girl and called it a Craig County showpiece. For more information about the museum located 215 W. Illinois Ave., call 918-323-1338 or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
Senior Reporter – @cp_wchavez
10/04/2016 08:30 AM
EUCHA, Okla. – Each year in late September, Cherokee Nation citizen Mark Dunham and his father Tad check chinkapin trees, which were once plentiful in the area, for prickly, green burs that hold nuts. Logging practices and a chestnut disease in the 1950s and 1960s nearly wiped out the Ozark chinkapin or Chinquapin. The Dunhams now compete with squirrels, deer and other animals for the small amount of nuts produced by the chinkapin trees on their land in Delaware County. “It’s a tree that’s becoming scarce because of a fungal virus. The fungal virus came from Chinese chestnut trees, which are very closely related to these trees,” Mark said. “Historically, the tree used to grow about 3 foot in diameter and would grow anywhere from 60 to 80 foot tall. It was a really good producer every year of nuts. The Cherokees, a long time ago, would make bread out of the nuts. The nuts are really high in protein, and they’re very good for you.” According to the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, the Ozark chinkapin is also called the Ozark chestnut. It was drought tolerant and grew on acidic dry rocky soils on hilltops and slopes. It bloomed in late May to early June after the threat of frost. The wood was prized because it was rot resistant and made excellent railroad ties and fence posts. “The Ozark Chinquapin nuts were delicious, and we waited for them to fall like you would wait on a crop of corn to ripen. They were that important. Up on the hilltop the nuts were so plentiful that we scooped them up with flat blade shovels and loaded them into the wagons to be used as livestock feed, to eat for ourselves and to sell. Deer, bears, turkeys, squirrels and a variety of other wildlife fattened up on the sweet crop of nuts that fell every year. But, starting in the 1950s and 60s all of the trees started dying off. Now they are all gone and no one has heard of them,” said a 96-year-old Missouri outdoorsman to the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, describing chinkapins before the blight reached the Ozarks. Mark said these days the trees usually grow 4 inches in diameter and about 20 to 25 feet tall. Periodically, a tree dies but sends up sprouts that grow for a few years before they too die. He said the trees usually grow four to seven years before dying and sprouting again. In 2015, Mark said he and his father harvested a pint of chinkapin nuts from one tree, and this year they managed to get about 10 nuts from a tree. “So, this was really a poor year,” Mark said. The Dunhams use leather gloves to handle the “spiky hull” that holds chinkapin nuts. Once the hulls or burs are pulled off a tree, Tad uses his pocketknife to split open the bur, which are three-quarter to 1-1/2 inches in diameter, to remove the nuts. Often the burs form in clusters on stems, but each bur contains a single, shiny brown acorn-like nut, which are called oo-na-geen or oo-ha-geen in Cherokee, Mark said. Mark said there is also a chinkapin oak tree that sometimes people mistake for Ozark chinkapin. The chinkapin oak produces acorn nuts and the nuts from the trees look similar, he said, but the leaves are different with the Ozark chinkapin leaves, being more elongated and about 3 to 6 inches long. He said besides making bread, he has eaten the nuts raw and roasted. Mark said the nuts have an “original taste” while Tad said the nuts taste similar to hazelnuts. Tad has planted Chinese chestnut trees in his yard, which are disease resistant and produce a larger nut than the Ozark chinkapin, usually more than twice the size. Mark said the Chinese chestnut produces a nut about the size of a quarter while the Ozark chinkapin produces a nut smaller than a dime. The Dunhams said they have a heritage of living off their land. Tad maintains a garden and keeps and feeds catfish in his pond. The family also gathers wild onions, morel mushrooms, black walnuts and black haws, which are a dark-black berry fruit. The family also hunts deer on its land. Tad said he is proud that his family could nearly sustain itself off of his property.
09/29/2016 10:00 AM
MUSKOGEE, Okla. – The Muskogee Phoenix, Bacone College and Five Civilized Tribes Museum are joining forces to create synergies between new and current events to usher in the inaugural “River City Intertribal Celebration” on March 31. But to kick off the event, Native American musical group Brule will perform on Sept. 30 at the Civic Center. On Oct. 1, the event shifts to Bacone College for the traditional powwow, a gathering of hundreds of the top Native dancers from across the country will compete for cash prizes. The day also will feature an art exhibit/show and dozens of Native American vendors displaying their arts and crafts. Event officials said years ago Muskogee was home to the Indian International Fair, which resembled contemporary agricultural fairs. Held annually in Muskogee, Indian Territory, in September or October from 1875 to about 1900, the weeklong event featured produce and domestic exhibits in a barn-like pavilion. Officials said these displays along with horse racing on the adjacent track, a merry-go-round and commercial vendors attracted many Indians and non-Indians from the Indian Territory and nearby states. “As a historian, I am thrilled about the prospect of joining forces with the (Muskogee) Phoenix and the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in the effort to raise awareness of the incredible underlying Native history of Muskogee,” Dr. Patti Jo King, Bacone College’s Center for American Indians director, said. “It will be wonderful to bring this history to light again, and to be able to instill that historic pride in our community and future generations.” King added that Bacone College, which opened in 1880, is the embodiment of the story of Indian Country and is a community treasure. “I have spoken to many people who have passed by this landmark for years, but have never ventured inside its gates,” she said. “I guarantee that if you would, you would find yourself fascinated by its beauty and intrigued by its amazing history and the stories that tie this wonderful old school to the town and people of Muskogee. This town is truly a history enthusiast’s paradise.” Officials said as an outgrowth of the Okmulgee Constitutional Convention of the early 1870s, the Indian International Fair served several purposes, including boosting the town and territory. Through music, dance, exhibits, food, talent shows, traditional Native American games and activities and much more, officials said the “River City Intertribal Celebration” hopes to rekindle and recapture that same spirit of yesteryear. “We are excited for the Five Civilized Tribes Museum and the participation of many talented artists in the River City Intertribal Celebration,” Sean Barney, museum executive director, said. “The festival is part of an effort to promote the region’s Indian music heritage and artistic talent. The festival will be the kickoff for the events showcased in April. We are very excited about the economic impact and awareness this event will bring to Muskogee.” Officials said the event’s support does not stop with the Muskogee Phoenix, Bacone College and the Five Civilized Tribes Museum as they are reaching out to the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations, as well as the Comanche Nation for collaboration. Officials said while working with the local and regional tribes, this celebration is also open to all Native American tribes throughout the country. “Our Native and non-Native communities have lived side by side for decades,” King said. “What fun it would be to put out heads together and share the very best of what we both have to offer – our stories and cherished historic memories. We are excited to be a part of this first big event, and we are looking forward to welcoming our friends, neighbors and visitors to be a part of the celebration. Our hats off to John Newby for this splendid idea of sharing our cultural heritage here in this unique, historic area.” Newby, publisher of the Muskogee Phoenix, said the dream is much larger than the inaugural event. “While the inaugural event is starting out as a day-and-a-half event, the goals and plans certainly don’t stop there,” he said. “It is the vision that we build one of the premier several-day Native American destination events in the country. Muskogee was once the Native American capital of the country. We need to bring that feeling back, and what better way to lay the foundation to accomplish this goal?” For more information, email Newby at <a href="mailto:"></a>; King at <a href="mailto:"></a> or Barney at <a href="" target="_blank"></a> or call Bacone Public Relations Office at 918-348-5868.
09/27/2016 03:00 PM
PARK HILL, Okla. – The Cherokee National Treasures Art Show opens Oct. 1 and will run through Nov. 5 at the Cherokee Heritage Center. The artists are held in highest regard by the Cherokee Nation for their talented work as culture keepers. The show introduces the most recently named treasures and features the work of others. Most artwork displayed is available for purchase. “We are beyond grateful to have such gifted citizens who are dedicated to the preservation and perseverance of Cherokee culture,” CHC Curator Callie Chunestudy said. “Our National Treasures are shining examples of how we ensure our tribal heritage thrives for generations to come.” The Cherokee National Treasure Award was created in 1988 and is given annually to a few people during the Cherokee National Holiday. These artisans are known for their commitment to preserving and promoting Cherokee culture. Since inception, nearly 100 CN citizens have earned this distinction. Each artist boasts a minimum of 10 years experience within their field and is a master of their craft. Included in the show is a special display honoring the late Edith Catcher Knight, of Stilwell. Knight, who died earlier this year, was bestowed the Cherokee National Treasure honor in 1992 for her work with traditional Cherokee clothing. A special reception is slated for 6 p.m. on Sept. 30 at the CHC to recognize Cherokee National Treasures and open the show. The event is free to attend and open to the public. The Cherokee National Treasures Art Show is made possible through the support of the Oklahoma Arts Council. The CHC is located at 21192 S. Keeler Drive. For information on 2016 season events, operating hours and programs, call 1-888-999-6007 or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
Reporter – @cp_sguthrie
09/26/2016 08:45 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Creativity flows from Cherokee Nation citizen Nathalie Standingcloud’s mind and fingertips as she creates artworks, whether they are temporary such as chalk or permanent such as tattoos. Through her creations she illustrates her calling in art. Standingcloud said she started drawing as soon as she could hold a pencil. “Being an artist as a young child, I have a lot of artists in my family so it’s kind of in my blood,” she said. “I always grew up drawing dragons and stuff, and people would tell me how good my drawings were and that I should get involved with it and really go with it. I just thought it was something good I could do. I never thought that I could create a career until I got older and realized that I don’t want to sit in an office. I’d rather just be outside drawing.” Growing up she never took art classes, she said, and didn’t until attending Northeastern State University. “I really haven’t become super involved in my art 24/7 everyday until maybe about two years ago when I started college because I took art classes there and really found out what my potential was,” she said. She said at NSU she won the 43rd annual Symposium on the American Indian poster contest in 2015. “They featured my pregnant woman on the poster, and I got to see it not only on the poster but in the newspaper, around town and on a billboard. So that was the first time I actually got to see my illustrations up and out there for the world to see,” she said. “To see that up there on the billboard, my artwork, it’s way different from seeing it in my notebook that’s for sure. It just made me feel, I don’t know, useful. Made me feel like I was making the world pay attention a little bit more, look at things and be inspired.” Since early summer she’s been involved with chalk art after winning a chalk art competition in Wagoner. “A family wanted me to go out and draw a portrait of their son who recently passed and we won first place. The family was happy. I was happy,” she said. “I never worked with chalk before then so there’s something about that competition that really inspired me to work with that medium a lot more.” She said some of her latest chalk art consist of traditional Cherokee pieces. “My first piece is a double-headed woodpecker Cherokee original, traditional design that I did,” she said. “The other one, the big circle with the two dragons, Uktena, that’s another original Cherokee design.” She’s also drawn Pokémon around Tahlequah, which she created after the hype the mobile game Pokémon Go made. “Pokémon’s a big thing now, so I like to draw Pokémon,” she said. “For some of the kids who don’t have a phone it’s kind of not fun to go outside and not see Pokémon, so when little kids walk by and they see Pikachu on the wall or Squirtle under the bridge it’s a little magical.” Standingcloud said because her chalk artwork isn’t permanent it’s important to see it before it’s gone. “My chalk work does take quite a bit of time to finish, but I think the fact that my chalk work is washable kind of makes it a little more special because it isn’t permanent. You only have a couple of days before the rain’s going to wash it away,” she said. Standingcloud said along with painting, sketching and tattooing she likes trying new mediums. “Being an artist, I just love to explore new mediums and hopefully chalk won’t be my last medium to explore,” she said. “I plan on becoming a full-time professional tattoo artist, so ink is another medium that I’m interested in. Just anything where I can get my creative juices flowing.” Standingcloud said she enjoys being an artist and hopes to continue creating and getting commission work. “I really enjoy this, and I hope that I get more commissions so my purpose of being an artist is fulfilled, and I just keep growing and learning and keeping people happy,” she said. To view her art or to commission a piece, visit her Facebook page, Instagram at littlemisscherokee or email <a href="mailto:"></a>.