Freedom Of Information Act was first in Indian Country

BY TESINA JACKSON
Former Reporter
06/12/2014 10:30 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation enacted its Freedom of Information and Rights of Privacy Act in 2001, becoming the first Federally recognized tribe to allow citizens access to public records of a public body. Governmental bodies in the United States, including some tribes, have similar laws governing the availability of information contained in public records.

“Native Americans have as much right as anybody else to get information from their government,” Kevin R. Kemper, former journalist and University of Arizona assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences, said. “When a tribe doesn’t have a freedom of information law, it’s extremely tough for journalists and the public.”

Kemper, who also serves as a Native American Journalists Association Legal Hotline intake liaison, said he believes strongly in freedom of information and tribal sovereignty.

“Each tribe needs to have the opportunity to have a freedom of information act, incorporate freedom of information as a way of helping the people,” he said.

According to the CN FOIA, a public record includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings or other documentary materials regardless of physical form or characteristics prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body.

“The requirements under FOIA are that (a request) be in writing to the department with a specific request for the document you are requesting,” CN Attorney General Todd Hembree said. “The department will take it, the process is to have it reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office to see if it meets the requirements of FOIA, and we handle it according to process.”

However, Hembree said there are documents, such as meeting minutes of a public body, that don’t need a formal request.

Each department of the tribe’s executive and legislative branches, after receiving a records request, has 15 business days to fulfill the request. According to the act, if written notification of the response is neither mailed nor personally delivered to the person requesting the documents within the 15 days, the request must be considered denied and the requestor may appeal the denial.

After reviewing the CN FOIA, Joey Senat, Oklahoma State University School of Media & Strategic Communications associate professor, said if a record is obviously public information then the person handling it should know that.

“Anyone should be able to walk up and make a request right there,” Senat, who served on the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee, said. “If the law was written so it was effective, it would allow anyone in the tribe to walk up to a public agency and make a request for a record that’s with that agency or with that official.

“If the record is right there and it can be made a copy, it should be provided on the spot, under the ways our law is written,” he added. “Having a 15-day delay wouldn’t be acceptable under (Oklahoma) state law.”

Hembree said he hasn’t received any complaints about the current process so he assumes it’s working fine. However, he said his staff has been overwhelmed by an increase of requests that come from a select group of people.

“The purpose of the act ¬– and it’s a great purpose – is to make sure that citizens know how their government is run, know how their money is made, know how their money is spent and the system has worked greatly up until October 2011, at which time there had been a dramatic increase in the amount of FIOA (requests),” he said. “That’s always been my number one goal, people will have that right and I, for one, will never stand in the way of that right.”

But Senat said because the CN FOIA gives tribal citizens the right to know what their government does the costs and number of requests shouldn’t matter.

“God forbid that the citizens know what their government is doing and that they want to find out,” he said. “It costs too much and there’s an increase? Well God forbid that the public actually put into effect the statute that says they have a right to know. That’s the purpose of these statutes and people should put them into effect and make requests. That’s why they’re there.”

Senat added that a list of all record requests should also be a public record and anyone should be able to ask for it.

“It’s a way to provide a paper trail so that the public can judge how well their government is responding to records requests,” he said. “Every time they have gotten a request, that’s a record.”

What records are public?

Public records are documents or pieces of information that are not considered exempt or confidential. Under the CN FOIA, certain categories are specifically made public information, however the use of the information for commercial solicitation is prohibited.

Public information includes the names; sex; race; title and dates of employment of all employees of public bodies; administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public; final opinions; documents identifying persons confined in any jail, detention center or prison; statements and interpretations of policy; statute and the Constitution; written planning policies and goals and final planning decisions; final CN audits and of its subsidiaries; information in or taken from any account; voucher or contract dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds by public bodies; the minutes and votes of all proceedings of all public bodies; and reports that disclose the nature, substance and location of any crime or alleged crime reported as having been committed.

“Tribal people expect transparency and accountability from their leaders, and there are a lot of great leaders throughout Indian Country,” Kemper said. “The best leaders tend to recognize transparency.”

The Nation’s FOIA states that any person has a right to inspect and/or copy public records.

“That’s one of the problems with how it is written now,” Senat said of the tribal law. “It should say ‘have the right to inspect and copy.’ It shouldn’t say ‘or.’ You should have the right to inspect a record and make your own copy if it means with a pencil and paper, to write down what you’re reading. Even with technology today, with a cell phone, the simplest thing is to take a photograph of a document.”

Some record copying may require a fee

According to the act, a public body – which is any CN board, commission, agency, authority, any public or governmental body or political subdivision of the Nation, including any organization or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds – may establish and collect fees that do not exceed the actual cost of searching for or making copies of records.

However, records must be furnished at the lowest possible cost and be provided in a form that is both convenient and practical for use by the person requesting copies of the records concerned. Fees may not be charged for examination and review to determine if the documents are subject to disclosure.

Open meetings and their rules

According to Robert’s Rules of Order, an executive session is a meeting or portion of a meeting that is convened in private. Only members of the governing body are entitled to attend but they may invite others to stay at the pleasure of that board, council, committee or commission. A motion is required to go into executive session and a majority must approve it. Those present must maintain the confidentiality of the discussion.

The regular meeting minutes should indicate when the board went into an executive session, what the primary reason was, any formal decisions that were made in executive session and when the board, council, committee or commission came out of executive session.

Investments or other financial matters may be in executive session if disclosure of the deliberations or decisions would jeopardize the ability to implement a decision or to achieve investment objectives.

A record of the board or of its fiduciary agents that discloses deliberations about or a tentative or final decision on, investments or other financial matters is exempt from disclosure as long as its disclosure would jeopardize the ability to implement an investment decision or program or to achieve investment objectives.

The panel may discuss, deliberate on and make decisions on a portion of the annual investment plan or other related financial or investment matters in executive session if disclosure would jeopardize the ability to implement that portion of the plan or achieve investment objectives.

A record of the panel that discloses discussions, deliberations or decisions on portions of the annual investment plan or other related financial or investment matters is not a public record to the extent and so long as its disclosure would jeopardize the ability to implement that portion of the plan or achieve investment objectives.

Matters exempt from disclosure

A public body may, but is not required to, exempt from disclosure information of a personal nature that would constitute unreasonable invasion of personal privacy, trade secrets, records of law enforcement under investigation and documents to proposed contractual arrangements and proposed sales or purchase of property.

Specific, individual salaries are also exempt from disclosure but annual budgets contain position listings without names.

Senat said omitting salaries from the public eye is “fodder for corruption.”

“You can go down to OSU and you can ask to see what I get paid as a state employee,” he said. “There’s no way to figure out who’s getting paid what? The public is the employer. The tribal citizens are the employer. They’re the ones paying the bill. They should be entitled to know who’s being paid what specifically. It should be open because that’s one way to fight corruption. That opens it up to favoritism, political patronage, basic corruption.”

Information that would violate attorney-client relationships, the identity of the maker of a gift to a public body if the maker requests to be anonymous and the identity of an individual who makes a complaint, which alleges a violation or potential violation of law or regulation also may be exempt from disclosure.

Memoranda, correspondence and working papers in the possession of individual members of the executive and legislative branches or their immediate staff are exempt. However, nothing may be construed as limiting or restricting public access to source documents or records, factual data or summaries of factual data, papers, minutes or reports.

Other memoranda, correspondence, documents and working papers relative to efforts to attract business or industry to invest within the CN may be exempt from disclosure. However, any record that is requested and is exempt and not disclosed or is disclosed and marked confidential should have a statement explaining the reasons for that determination.

“It does has a lot of common exemptions,” Senat said. “This is a strength under the law where it says that if they’re going to deny it they have to explain why something is exempt. These statutes can be very strong, but if they’re not enforced they’re worthless.”

Photographs, signatures, addresses, race, weight, height, Social Security number and digitized images from a driver’s license or personal identification cards are also not considered public records.

“Some leaders keep things secret and that could violate the right of the people,” Kemper said. “You see a lot of that throughout Indian Country and the tribe will have to sort that out.”

Kemper added that he believes there are some understandable exceptions such as sacred knowledge.

“Every tribe’s culture is different, that’s why it’s important to create freedom of information that’s a cultural match,” he said.

Penalties for not providing records

Any CN citizen may look to the District Court for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in FOIA cases as long as the application is made not later than one year following the date on which the alleged violation occurs or one year after a public vote in public session.

The court may order equitable relief as it considers appropriate and a violation must be considered to be an irreparable injury for which no adequate remedy at law exists.

If a person or entity seeking such relief prevails, they may be awarded reasonable attorney fees and other costs of litigation. If they prevail in part, the court may award them reasonable attorney fees or an appropriate portion.

According to the act, any person or group of persons who willfully and maliciously violates the provisions of the FOIA may be found guilty of a crime and upon conviction shall be fine not more than $100 or imprisoned for not more than 30 days for the first offense. For the second offense, the fine shall not be more than $200 or imprisoned for not more than 60 days and shall not be fine more than $300 or imprisoned for not more than 90 days.

News

BY WILL CHAVEZ
Assistant Editor – @cp_wchavez
02/21/2018 08:15 AM
TAHLEQUAH – This year marks the 190th anniversary of when the Cherokee Phoenix was first published on Feb. 21, 1828, in New Echota, Georgia, a former Cherokee Nation capital. It was the first bilingual newspaper in North America, printed in Cherokee, using Sequoyah’s syllabary, and English. Since 1828, the Phoenix has only been printed a total of 25 years – from 1828 to 1834 in the old CN and from October 2000 to present day. The Cherokee Advocate newspaper followed the Phoenix and was printed from September 1844 until March 1906 and then from January 1977 until September 2000. “As a tribal citizen I’m thankful that the Cherokee Nation has always been a leader when it comes to documenting and telling its own story. There isn’t anything more important than having Native voices to represent our communities and people and to tell the stories about tribal issues, said CN citizen Jennifer Bell, editor of the Hownikan, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s newspaper. “As a Cherokee, I’m proud to have the Cherokee Phoenix as an example of how this has been done for 190 years.” Its creation in 1825 by the Cherokee National Council was part of an assimilation process by Cherokee leadership. Officials thought if they lived like their white neighbors – building schools, opening businesses and government offices and having a newspaper – that perhaps Georgians would accept them and let them stay on their lands. The newspaper’s first editor, Elias Boudinot, learned about the Phoenix bird of Egyptian mythology, which consumes itself in fire every 500 years and is reborn from the ashes, at school in Cornwall, Connecticut. Boudinot was part of a prominent Cherokee family, the brother of Stand Watie, nephew of Major Ridge and cousin of John Ridge. Boudinot, the Ridges, Principal Chief John Ross, Charles R. Hicks, and his son, Elijah Hicks, formed the CN’s ruling elite that believed acculturation into white society was critical to Cherokee survival. Boudinot, Stand Watie, John Ridge and Elijah Hicks, raised money to start the newspaper, and Boudinot went on a fundraising tour in Philadelphia and New York to find financing for it. He also used the tour to inform people of the Cherokee’s progress and acculturation. Along with gaining support from Americans, he raised enough money to purchase a printing press, which was set up in the tribe’s new capital in New Echota. Boudinot and Chief Ross used the Phoenix to write against the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the growing encroachment and harassment of Georgia settlers. It also contained news, features, accounts about Cherokees living in Arkansas and other area tribes, as well as social and religious activities. Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia), which affected Cherokee rights, were also written about extensively. As pressure for the Cherokee to leave Georgia increased, Boudinot changed his mind and began advocating for the Cherokee’s removal west. At first Chief Ross did not suppress Boudinot’s opposing view, but in early 1832 the two’s differences caused Boudinot to resign as editor. Elijah Hicks, a brother-in-law of Chief Ross, was appointed editor in August 1832, but the Phoenix was silenced on May 31, 1834, when the government ran out of money for it. After the Cherokee’s removal to Indian Territory, Cherokee leaders reorganized the government after three major factions reunited in 1839. It was Chief Ross who envisioned reviving a Cherokee newspaper. In October 1843, when the Cherokee National Council met for its regular session, he made the proposal for funding a newspaper. Legislators approved the act establishing the Advocate on Oct. 25, 1843, “to inform and encourage the Cherokees in agriculture, education and religion and to enlighten the world with correct Indian news.” On Sept. 26, 1844, the Advocate’s first issue was printed, in Cherokee and English, in the Supreme Court building (still located south of the Cherokee Capitol Building in Tahlequah) under the guidance of William Potter Ross, a Princeton graduate. Production of the Advocate stopped and started between 1853 and 1906. The paper ceased printing in March 1906 when the CN was dissolved by the U.S. government in preparation for Oklahoma statehood. Today’s Phoenix is one of only a handful of tribal newspapers in the United States that is a free press newspaper, which was made possible by the Cherokee Independent Press Act of 2000. The act protects the newspaper from undue influence from the tribe’s government. Along with a monthly newspaper, the Phoenix has a website and uses social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as a daily email newsletter. “Aside from its historical importance as being the first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix played a crucial role in distributing information to Cherokee citizens during troublesome times while we were in the east and facing removal,” CN History and Preservation Officer Catherine Foreman Gray said. “Today, the Phoenix continues to operate as a free press that informs and educates Cherokee citizens on local, state and national issues that impact our tribe and Indian Country.”
BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
02/20/2018 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH (AP) – Bassmaster has officially announced the 2018 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops will take place in Tahlequah. Tour Tahlequah, more formally known as the Tahlequah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, is the local sponsor and will partner with Northeastern State University, the Cherokee Nation and local businesses to bring the college fishing tournament July 19-21 to Lake Tenkiller and the city. “What an honor it is to have the city of Tahlequah chosen for the 2018 Bassmaster Collegiate Fishing Tournament,” said Aubrey Valdez, Tour Tahlequah assistant director. “We are gearing up for this event and are excited to show our Oklahoma hospitality to fishermen and spectators. We already have an enormous amount of support from Northeastern State University, Cherokee Nation, city officials and many others, and know July will be here in a flash. We hope to make this a memorable occasion for everyone involved.” Presented by Bass Pro Shops, the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship provides the opportunity for college anglers from across the country to compete at a national level. Anglers participating in the championship tournament must first qualify by competing in qualifying tournaments during the 2017-2018 season. At the national championship, one college angler will earn a berth in the biggest tournament in bass fishing: the Bassmaster Classic. “Competing in a national championship tournament is the ultimate goal,” said Tyler Winn, Tahlequah sophomore and NSU fishing team member. “To think this tournament will be here in Tahlequah is unreal. Anglers from all over the country will fish on the lake I’ve grown up on.” The Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship is a weeklong event. Anglers arrive on Sunday of tournament week, practicing the mornings of Monday through Wednesday, and competing Thursday through Saturday. While the anglers are on the water, tournament sponsors and staff collaborate to present a series of events for the anglers, fans and community. Event attendance averages 1,000 to 1,500 spectators each day with weigh-in attendance reaching more than 3,000. Weigh-ins are broadcasted live on Bassmaster.com each day. The tournament week is captured and aired at a later date on ESPNU. Tahlequah offers visitors the opportunity to engage in outdoor recreational activities while also being able to learn about Cherokee culture and shop and dine at locally owned businesses. Jon James, NSU alumnus, is the field promotions manager for Dynamic Sponsorships. He played a key role in making Tahlequah a location to be considered for the national tournament. During James’ time as a student, the staff at NSU instilled confidence in him and pushed him to succeed. “NSU played a vital role in helping me grow as a person and bringing the tournament to Tahlequah is a way to say thank you,” said James. “Tahlequah is a wonderful tourist destination and has beautiful fishery in Lake Tenkiller. This is a great place to take a family, and there aren’t many places that have a small town feel but still have the accommodations and resources to support an event like this.” During the tournament, anglers will fish on Lake Tenkiller. However, the key events of the week will primarily take place at NSU. Events including the angler kick-off banquet, angler speaker seminar, sponsor outdoor expo and weigh-ins will occur on the university campus with Seminary Hall as an iconic backdrop. NSU will also be home to the estimated 90 teams of college anglers during their time in Tahlequah. For more information, call 918-456-3742.
BY ROGER GRAHAM
Multimedia Producer – @cp_rgraham
02/20/2018 12:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation citizens and members of the Tahlequah Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers on Feb. 8 dedicated a memorial stone honoring military veterans at the Cherokee Warrior Memorial adjacent to the Tribal Complex. The stone reads: “Honoring our Military Sons and Daughters, Blue Star Mother’s OK21, Tahlequah, OK.” BSMOK21 President Billie Walker and Founder Melody Parker dedicated the stone before a small group consisting of Principal Chief Bill John Baker, Deputy Chief and U.S. Navy veteran S. Joe Crittenden, Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr., Tribal Councilor Joe Byrd and CN Veterans Center Director Barbara Foreman. “It took a year to make this memorial a reality,” Walker said. “There are sons and daughters deployed now. This stone will be here long after they get home.” The stone was Parker’s idea. “Each month our chapter sends boxes of items to our soldiers. Items like gloves, socks, anything we can afford that make their time away easier. It let’s them know we’re thinking of them. One hundred percent of the Blue Star Mother’s funding comes from donations.” Crittenden said he was thrilled to see the addition to the Cherokee Warriors Memorial and is grateful from where it came. “I served in the Navy in the 1960s. It meant the world to us when we received items from home. What the Blue Star Mothers did today and every day is important because the soldiers they help are out there for us. They deserve to know they aren’t forgotten,” he said. For information on the Blue Star Mothers in Tahlequah, visit their Facebook page.
BY BRITTNEY BENNETT
Reporter – @cp_bbennett
02/19/2018 04:00 PM
GLENPOOL – Native artists from Oklahoma and out-of-state tribes gathered to show their works and educate the public about their crafts Feb. 9-11 at the 31st Greater Tulsa Indian Art Festival. The festival, the largest inter-tribal fine art show in the Tulsa area, also ranks among the best fine art shows for genuine Native art in the country. Chairman Robert Trepp said the event began in 1987 and was inspired by the cast of the 1984 American Indian Theater Company production “Black Elk Speaks.” “It was really inspired by a lot of the cast from ‘Black Elk Speaks’ that was put on here in Tulsa, and it’s just grown through the years,” Trepp said. “It’s nationally known. It’s got a big emphasis on Eastern Woodlands cultures, which most shows do not have.” Volunteers largely run the festival as it draws various artists including painters, potters and jewelers. “We have artists from all over the country,” Trepp said. “I think for local artists it’s an opportunity for them especially to see each other again and to have that fellowship to share ideas, compare notes as to what they’ve been up to. And for our people out of state, it’s an opportunity for them to come and meet with our local artists.” Trepp said the festival especially emphasizes citizens of local tribes, including Cherokees. “The Cherokee are one of the largest tribes in the country, and they sit right here. Their territory wraps all the way around the Tulsa metropolitan area,” he said. “They have a huge influence on Native people and relationships with Native people here in Tulsa.” The GTIAF 2018 Featured Artist was Jane Osti, a Cherokee National Treasure whose pottery piece “Woodland Song” was chosen for this year’s festival poster. “This is one of the first shows that I did when I started doing art and selling art,” Osti said. “This is a good nurturing ground and you don’t get too big for it either. You can still do the show even though it might have been one of your starting shows.” Osti said she’s been doing pottery for more than 30 years and makes her Woodland pieces “the traditional way.” “I make pottery the old way, the traditional way of hand coiling and they are usually kiln-fired first and then wood-fired,” she said. “The designs and the shapes, a lot of them are from our very old pottery, but sort of moved around in a contemporary way. My teacher was Anna Mitchell, master Cherokee potter and that was the way she did pottery. Just about any Cherokee making pottery has either learned from Anna, or learned from one of us that has learned from her…” Osti said most people only recognize Southwest pottery, but that she’s seeing a shift. “A few people are noticing the Woodland Pottery and the Woodland works in general,” she said. “I make pottery and teach it. It’s the way I make a living, but it’s also to ensure that we keep doing our traditional work and passing it on, educating the general public and our customers about our Woodland pottery.” Cherokee Nation citizen Ryan Lee Smith conducted painting demonstrations to give the public a peek into his creative process. “It’s hard for me to engage, and that’s what I want to do. I want to show it to people. That’s the reason I do it,” he said. “It gives them insight to the process I’m going through. It might make no sense to them on site, but it allows me to relax and get in my comfort zone.” Smith said much of his work is influenced by nature, as well as from stories his grandmother passed down to him. “My grandmother taught me little things like what bird makes this sound and how to grow tomatoes and all these core things that I didn’t know were important until I got older,” he said. “These birds and all these animals, all these things, they were like characters in a story to me, all of them throughout growing up. They seem to be the most honest depiction of things.” He describes his work as “simple” and “a little tongue-in-cheek,” but hopes that it’s humorous to the public and inspires a “good” feeling. Smith said he doesn’t worry about rules when it comes to medium or his vibrant color choices. “As far as the rules, the technical training that I’ve had in grad school and undergrad where they tell you what paint to use on what surface and what type of brush and all that, I feel like it’s almost like they taught me what not to do,” he said. “It just is a little more liberating to break tradition. The things just sort of find their place, and I’m just kind of like a landlord. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t do this.”
BY LINDSEY BARK
Reporter
02/19/2018 12:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation’s judicial branch has moved from its downtown location inside the CN Capitol Building to space in the recently built second story of the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex. The Capitol Building was built after the Civil War, completed in 1869 and occupies the center of Tahlequah’s town square. In 1991, the Tribal Council re-established the District Court to utilize the Capitol Building to hear civil, juvenile and adoption cases. After 27 years and several attempts at a new facility, the CN court system has moved to a new and more modern location. “We’ve been in the Capitol Building since 1991, whenever the council passed legislation allowing us to continue doing our District Court. We started out there and we pretty much outgrew this building as our caseload started growing,” Court Administrator Lisa Fields said. The new location encompasses 15,385 square feet of more space and “state-of-the-art” equipment. “It’s beautiful. It’s state of the art and it’s a really nice courtroom. It’s going to be large enough to hold our court customers or people that come to court,” Fields said. The new location contains large and small courtrooms, offices for attorneys to meet with clients, new offices for all court staff members, District and Supreme Court filings counters and a separate location from the general public to allow CN marshals to bring in prisoners to have their cases heard. District Court judges and Supreme Court justices will also have their own chambers, which was not available at the Capitol Building. Fields said everyone in the court system, including justices and other judiciary officials, were in agreement with the move. “To say the least that we, meaning the justices and the district judges, are very excited and looking forward to the new courtroom. The facilities are very nice. I think it’s just a great move for the court system,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John C. Garret said. Fields said the court system had a target date of Feb. 26 to begin filings at the new location with the first court docket scheduled for March 2. The last docket in the previous location was Feb. 16. Cherokee Nation Businesses officials said they plan to restore and refurbish the Capitol Building for future use as a museum for the public. “We’re moving into the modern era I guess you could say. We’ve been in this old building, which we absolutely love, but we want to see it go back to its original state and for the public to enjoy it,” Fields said.
BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
02/19/2018 08:30 AM
TAHELQUAH (AP) — Thirteen years ago, in an unguarded moment on her first day of kindergarten, Emilee Chavez spoke a single word of English. And a classmate immediately ran to tell the teacher. “Hey,” the teacher raised her voice harshly, “you can’t use English here. Speak Cherokee, or don’t say anything at all.” Chavez’s parents would have gotten in trouble if a teacher had caught them speaking a word of Cherokee, which is one reason the language began plummeting toward extinction. Schools banned it, so nearly an entire generation stopped speaking it. For Chavez and her classmates, however, the Cherokee Immersion Charter School turned the tables. They were punished for speaking English. Launched in 2001 on the grounds of the tribal headquarters, the school started with 23 students. But Cherokee is a hard language. Only nine made it all the way through the program. “I didn’t say much for the first few weeks,” remembers Chavez, now a high school senior. “But when you’re around the language eight hours a day, every day, you can’t help picking it up. After a while, it’s just natural.” Now the first batch of Cherokee immersion students is about to graduate from high school, a milestone in a grand experiment that is trying to revive the Cherokee language before it is too late. They haven’t actually been immersed in the language since the seventh grade, when Chavez and her classmates began studying at the Cherokee Nation’s Sequoyah Schools, where all classes are taught in English. The question then was how far behind would they be compared to their non-immersion classmates, who had gone to English-speaking grade schools. “We were behind,” Chavez said, especially in reading and writing. “But not for long.” Now the former immersion school students are all near the top of their graduating class at Sequoyah, officials say. With their graduation upcoming, however, the program will face an even more critical test. Will they retain the language into adulthood? And will they pass it on to the next generation? Or will the tribe’s ancient language continue to fade? “We’re not just going to walk away from it and forget it,” says Lauren Hummingbird, one of six immersion-school students who will earn their diplomas from Sequoyah this semester. “We’ve worked too hard and we care too much to let that happen.” Growing up around her grandparents, who are fluent speakers, Hummingbird’s first words were in Cherokee, not English, making her the closest thing her generation has to a “native speaker.” Close listeners can even detect a mild Cherokee accent when she speaks English. But with most other speakers being her grandparents’ age, 17-year-old Hummingbird has to go looking for opportunities to practice her language skills. Even her old immersion-school classmates tend to speak English to each other when they cross paths in the Sequoyah hallways, although Cherokee can serve as a useful code language when they don’t want other teens to know what they are saying. “Even then,” Hummingbird says, “it’s usually a mix of Cherokee and English. When I really want to speak Cherokee, I go see my grandparents.” After graduation this spring, she will spend a year working with the tribe’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, a sort of immersion class for adults, where Hummingbird will be both a student and a facilitator. Then she plans to study linguistics in college before returning to Tahlequah to do exactly what tribal officials always hoped some of the immersion students would do when they grew up. “I see myself coming back here and working with immersion to teach the language,” she says. “I honestly can’t see my future going any other way.” Native speakers, however, continue to die off faster than immersion programs can replace them, with only 133 students enrolled in the entire grade school this semester, tribal officials say. For the foreseeable future, the Cherokee language will continue to decline. “We’re not doing enough,” says Chuck Hoskin Jr., the tribe’s secretary of state. “But we’re taking steps in the right direction.” When the tribe started the immersion school in the early 2000s, it also conducted an extensive survey to gauge how endangered the language really was. And the results were shocking: Only 10,000 fluent speakers remained alive, almost all of them past middle age. Officials at the time estimated that without drastic efforts to reverse the language’s decline, Cherokee would be dead “within 30 or 40 years.” Roughly half that time has now gone by, but not without the tribe’s making progress, Hoskin says. Before the immersion school and the more recent adult apprentice program, native speakers weren’t being replaced at all as they died off. At least now, a new generation is learning to speak Cherokee. “They amount to only a handful. We know that,” Hoskin says. “But you can see the dedication, the commitment. And that’s why I’m optimistic about the future of the language, because I can see how important it is to these young people.”