NSU offers Cherokee language program

BY TESINA JACKSON
Former Reporter
12/07/2011 08:14 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Since 1909, Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., has offered several Native American degree programs and courses, most of which are taught in Seminary Hall, shown here. Today, NSU is the only public institution in the U.S. to offer a teaching degree in a Native language. TESINA JACKSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – In a cooperative effort between Northeastern State University and the Cherokee Nation, the Cherokee Education Degree Program allows students to major in the Cherokee language and give them the capability to teach how to speak, read and write Cherokee.

“This cultural understanding opens all sorts of doors to careers, not jobs,” said Dr. Leslie Hannah, director of the Cherokee studies and language programs at NSU. “I make a distinct difference between jobs and careers. A job is something one does for a check. A career is something one does for life and these Cherokee language and culture courses change lives and create lifelong learners who in turn become life changers.”

The bachelor’s degree program started in 2005 after NSU and CN announced that the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education had approved the program. The CEDP was founded to prepare students to be teachers, speakers, readers and writers of the Cherokee language.

Since 1909, NSU has offered several Native American degree programs and courses. Today, NSU is the only public institution in the U.S. to offer a teaching degree in a Native language.

There have been 10 students who have graduated from the program. One of those students, Meda Nix, currently works at the CN Immersion School.

Nix teaches kindergarten at the school. She also has taught Cherokee at Rogers State College and currently teaches a Cherokee language night course at NSU.

“I see these younger students coming up and we need Cherokee teachers,” Nix said. “I really encourage them to stay with it and to get the education part of it, the Cherokee education part.”
She decided to apply for the NSU program after retiring from Indian Health Services. She graduated from the program in May after 4-1/2 years of taking courses.

Nix said she grew up hearing the Cherokee language from her family and her church.

“I guess I learned a lot because when I started the program it was kind of like déjà vu, you’ve heard it before, that’s kind of the way it was for me and one day it just came together,” she said.
Students who graduate from the program are not limited to working at the immersion school or even within the CN.

“A side benefit that I am uncertain anyone saw coming is a more complete understanding of how Native people think, which can allow the students to do most anything they want within Indian Country,” she said. “They are not limited to Cherokee Country as they hold an understanding of the Native way of seeing life.”

On average, approximately 30 students major in the program annually, with an additional eight to 10 who minor in it.

“Many of the students who take the language courses are not going to be majors. They simply want the language,” Hannah said. “Those who are majors claim a very personal and some even say spiritual experience in learning, relearning or honing their language skills. It becomes very personal for them when they reach a certain level of skill. I have noticed this in Cherokees and non-Cherokees alike. They are proud of their accomplishments, as well they should be.”

The courses offered in the program include Elementary Cherokee I, Conversational Cherokee I, Intermediate Cherokee I, Cherokee Conversational Practicum and Cherokee Cultural Heritage.

However, there is no certification in the Cherokee language so some students have to take another language such as Spanish or French and then get alternate certification in Cherokee by using their course work as a substitute.

“As things are currently structured that is one of the only two ways to get certification,” Hannah said. “Many will go the alternate certification route from the beginning, thus adding at least one, sometimes two semesters to their degree track. We are working with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages to solve this.”

When students graduate they should be able to speak, write and read the language; analyze the morphology, phonology and semantics of the language; critique literature and historical documents written in the language; and access the status of Cherokee speech communities, the effects of language endangerment and approaches to language revitalization.

tesina-jackson@cherokee.org • 918-453-5000, ext. 6139

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