Monolingual Cherokee speaker Blackbird dies
William “Dictee” Blackbird, of Marble City, was a monolingual Cherokee speaker who died at age 87 on April 1. Blackbird signed the Cherokee Speaker Roll Book in 2019 and posed with his medallion after signing the book. COURTESY
William Blackbird, right, died at age 87 on April 1 and was one of the last monolingual Cherokee speakers in the Cherokee Nation. He is pictured with his father Blackbird Blackbird, left, and Dave Cheater. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID CRAWLER
MARBLE CITY – One of the last monolingual Cherokee speakers in the Cherokee Nation has died. William “Dictee” Blackbird, of Marble City, was 87.
Blackbird lived traditionally on his family’s land and loved fishing and gigging at Sallisaw Creek.
“Sadly, we have lost one of our 2,000 Cherokee speakers and among our last monolingual speakers,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “This is a tremendous loss to our tribe, our culture and most importantly it should give us all pause to realize how precious our language is to preserve and teach to our young people. Our prayers are with Mr. Blackbird’s nieces and nephews and family at this time.”
CN Language Program Translator David Crawler, of Marble City, said he would visit with Blackbird who lived alone just north of the Sequoyah County town. They would converse in Cherokee and sometimes Blackbird would share Cherokee stories. He said other people and neighbors checked in on the elder and brought him food.
Crawler said this past summer he and his aunt, Phyllis Sixkiller, took the Cherokee Speaker Roll Book to Blackbird. The book was created to gather the signatures of Cherokee speakers and to honor them. Each speaker who signed the book received a medallion from the CN.
“He really didn’t have much to say about the book,” Crawler said. “He just said he was surprised there was less than 2,000 speakers left. That includes the Eastern Band, the UKB (United Keetoowah Band) and us (Cherokee Nation). He said he thought there was more than that. What he said is: ‘I guess we’re just dying out.’”
Crawler said he never heard Blackbird speak English, but he had no reason to when he spoke with Crawler because they could converse in Cherokee. “I don’t know of any others (mono-lingual speakers). There are some out there that don’t talk much English, but they can survive in the yoneg (white) world, but I don’t think William could have.”
Master Apprentice Program Manager Howard Paden, who helped create the roll book, said the book was started “with a mixture of ideas and goals.”
“Foremost we wanted to celebrate and recognize Cherokee speakers,” Paden said. “This population were often punished and teased in school for being a speaker. If we want to lift up our language then it’s a must, we have to elevate the carriers of our language. Many speakers still try not to speak Cherokee in public places. It’s not that they are ashamed of our language, but in the past authority figures in their lives have told them not to speak it around people who don’t understand or not to speak it at all. We believe the more we celebrate them as speakers the more comfortable they will be speaking it in front of non-speakers.”
He added that just recently it was believed there were around 10,000 Cherokee speakers. It was a “sobering reality” to find out there are approximately 2,000 speakers, and their average among the group is in the mid-60s,” Paden said.
“The loss of monolingual speaker William Blackbird signals the loss of an era. The Cherokee monolingual era is an era that has existed since the first Cherokee,” Paden added. “Monolingual speakers represent the purest of Cherokee thought and philosophy. William Blackbird was a warm-hearted man that was loved by many. He will be sorely missed by his family, friends and Nation. We morn his loss and the loss of the purest of eras.”
A graveside service for Blackbird will be held April 6 at the McCoy-Evening Shade Cemetery in the Evening Shade under the direction of Agent Mallory Martin Funeral Service.
He was born on Jan. 11, 1933, in the Evening Shade Community near Vian to Mary (Lincoln) Blackbird and Blackbird Blackbird. He was an egg gatherer for the community of Marble City and of the Baptist faith.
Survivors are Harriet Pettit and family; the Barnoski Family; and several nieces, nephews, other relatives and friends. His parents and two brothers, Dick Blackbird and Junior Blackbird, preceded him in death.