Oklahoma, Snowbird Cherokees speak language alike
Hartwell Francis, education curriculum developer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, works on translating English words for salamanders into Cherokee with the Cherokee Language Consortium during a March meeting in North Carolina. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Hartwell Francis, education curriculum developer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, translates English words into Cherokee with the Cherokee Language Consortium. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee speakers from the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians talk after dinner in the Snowbird Community in western North Carolina, From left are Dennis Sixkiller (CN), Lou Jackson (EBCI), Kathy Sierra (CN) and Marlene Brown (EBCI), standing. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
ROBBINSVILLE, N.C. – The Cherokee community of Snowbird is deep in the western mountains of North Carolina.
Its isolation helped the Cherokee people when federal soldiers began rounding them up to be moved west in the spring of 1838. Many Snowbird Cherokees hid from soldiers in the mountains and months later returned to their homes.
They were also isolated from their Cherokee kin who live in state on the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, about 45 miles east of Snowbird.
The community’s proximity to other Cherokee people west of them in eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia when the old Cherokee Nation existed also created a difference in how Snowbird Cherokees speak the language in comparison to the Qualla Cherokees. It’s believed Snowbird Cherokees speak more like Oklahoma Cherokees, who are descended from Cherokees who lived in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northeastern Alabama and northern Georgia.
Hartwell Francis, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Kituwah Preservation and Education Program education curriculum developer, said there was always a closer “affinity” between the two groups.
“They had a much closer relationship, I think, because of the geography. They (Snowbird Cherokees) were more closely associated with the old Cherokee Nation,” he said. “I think the Cherokee in the Qualla Boundary area were even more isolated than this area over here (Snowbird).”
Hartwell added that some Cherokees returned to the Snowbird area after being removed in 1838, such as Cherokee leader Junaluska, and that may also contribute to the Cherokee language in Oklahoma and in Snowbird being similar.
Francis said a big difference between what is spoken in Snowbird and Oklahoma versus what is spoken on the Qualla Boundary is the “tl” sound and “tla or “tlo” sounds. Qualla speakers use a “ts” sound while speakers in Snowbird and Oklahoma used a “tl” sound, which, Francis said, indicates the Cherokee language is changing in the Qualla Boundary.
“Technically you could say that the Qualla Boundary Cherokee is innovative and that the old Cherokee Nation language, which includes Snowbird, is a more conservative Cherokee language,” he said.
Dennis Sixkiller – a Cherokee speaker and Cherokee Language Consortium member, which is comprised of speakers from the CN, EBCI and United Keetoowah Band – said he believes the Snowbird people speak Cherokee like those in Oklahoma.
“I do believe that the people that live in Snowbird talk more like we do here, and more so than the people in the town of Cherokee,” the CN citizen said. “There are some differences. An example would be the word we use for where. We say ha-tlv, and there (Snowbird) they say ga-tsv. The word for watermelon here is gv-gis-di and there they say kv-gis-di. If they are asking you to ride with them in their vehicle they make it sound as if they are asking you if you want to ride on top of their vehicle, I suppose like a stagecoach.”
After earning a doctorate in theoretical linguistics at the University of Colorado, in 2006 Francis applied to become the Cherokee Language Program director at Western Carolina University and developed a language program at the university, which is in Cullowhee. He enlisted the help of CN citizen and Cherokee speaker, Tom Belt. He said he and Belt worked closely with Cherokee speakers in the area to develop the program.
“I was reaching out to those speakers to bring them to the university to work with us and develop the Cherokee language material and help us learn about the language,” he said.
After serving as CLP director at WCU from 2006-16, Francis worked with the EBCI to help revitalize the language.
Sixkiller and consortium members also work with Francis to expand the number of Cherokee translations from English. Members from Oklahoma will travel to Cherokee, and members from Cherokee will travel to Oklahoma for quarterly meetings.
Even with frequent meetings between western and eastern Cherokees, Sixkiller said he sometimes has difficulty understanding Cherokee speakers from the Qualla Boundary.
“The people in the town Cherokee and the surrounding communities talk a little like those in Snowbird, but some things they say I can’t understand,” he said. “I think they talk quite a bit differently there than we do here because I have to listen pretty closely when they talk. I think personally it’s because they don’t use the “tl” sounds from the syllabary as much as we do.”